04 March 2015

An Unplanned Dash to Maui

I had heard about fare sales to Maui, so mid-week a couple of weeks ago, I started checking fares for that upcoming weekend.  Much to my surprise, I could still purchase a ticket to Maui on the flights I wanted (Saturday morning out and Sunday afternoon return) for pretty much the same price I would have paid several weeks beforehand.  Moreover, I was within the complimentary upgrade window for my elite status and seats were available, so I could also confirm upgrades in both directions.  So I booked it.

My departing flight left on schedule.  Even though it was a 757, it was equipped with the United wifi entertainment system.  Fortunately, my iPad was fully charged, so I had more than enough power to watch movies the whole way (no power available at the seats).

It so happened that I had friends on the flight who were headed to a week-long vacation on Maui.  They were getting a rental car and offered to give me a ride to my hotel.  With no bags to wait for, we were on our way to the Wailea coast.  I hadn't been to Maui in a few years.  There was new development near the airport, including a new Target that looked almost ready to open, and new lane dividers.  Once we left Kahului, I could see all the new housing developments as well.

For this quick trip, I decided to stay at the relatively new Andaz Maui at Wailea.  At short notice, there were no rate deals, so I decided to use Hyatt points for the one night.  Upon arrival, I checked in, but my room was not ready (it was only around noon).  They said they would get on it and call me when it was ready.  I used the time to walk around the property a little to get oriented.  It was maybe an hour later that I was notified that my room was ready.

The hotel only has about 270 rooms.  The pools are arranged in tiers, so there are plenty of places to hang out.  Even though the hotel was full, the grounds never seemed crowded.  The room they gave me was on the 3rd floor (Lobby was on the 5th floor) and faced the adult pool.  The room was an upgrade to a partial ocean view (partial because the room was on the lower floors).

Looking at shower from vanity
Walk-in shower

The room was spacious.  Like all Andaz hotels, the non-alcoholic offerings in the minibar refrigerator were free, as were the snacks (potato chips, nut mix, granola bar).  The walk-in shower was nice as far as being roomy.  However, there was only one overhead rainshower fixture in the center.  It looked like they had partially installed fixtures for a handheld shower but didn't complete the installation.  So, having all that room made no difference since you had to stand in the center to be in the water.

There was a large closet with a couple of drawers (one with the in-room safe) and ironing board.

The hotel was in a nice location.  It was right on the beach, with access to the beach trail that runs along the coast to the other resort areas and to public parks.  It was also about a 10-minute walk to The Shops at Wailea.

After settling in my room, I decided to have lunch while checking out the adult pool area.  The full bar menu of food and drinks was available to me, so I ordered a lobster grilled cheese and a glass of a Santa Barbara Chardonnay.

Wine and beer selections from the bar menu:

Another reason I selected the Andaz was I wanted to try the Morimoto restaurant located on the premises.  I had made a reservation ahead of time on Opentable.com  when I knew I was headed to Maui.  I ordered an Omakase tasting menu dinner, which has several nicely prepared dishes.

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

Before the day ended, I needed to set up my ride to the airport for the next day.  I had considered making the reservation prior to leaving the mainland, but I never got around to it.  When I tried to do it online with SpeediShuttle, it said I had to call.  When I did, they had somewhat limited availability.  However, they had a slot or me at 11:00 am, which was only a half-hour earlier than the normal pick-up time for my scheduled flight time.  While it was not inexpensive, it was cheaper than using a taxi.

With a flight at 1:30 pm, I could have a leisurely morning,  I had breakfast at the hotel restaurant, opting for the continental portion of the buffet only (which also included oatmeal and one ordered side dish).  I had no problem getting seated and the food selections were varied enough for a filling breakfast.

Afterwards, I still had time for a nice walk up the beach before having to return to my room to gather my things and meet the shuttle up front.  After two stops for pickups, we were at the airport within a half-hour.  With TSA-PreCheck, I was through security quickly and had ample time for last-minute shopping, especially since the inbound plane was a little late in arriving.  Even with that, we arrived back at SFO on schedule, bringing my quick but enjoyable Maui weekend to an end.

03 March 2015

Iceland in the Winter

There really is only one reason to decide to go to Iceland in the middle of winter and that is to try and see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis).  That was my primary objective several months beforehand when I decided to sketch out plans for the trip,  I even piqued the interest of some friends, who ultimately decided to go along.

The idea for the trip was triggered by a mailing I received from the travel arm of the Harvard Alumni Association.  They were offering an itinerary that fit right in with a long weekend over the Presidents' Day holiday.  I kept this in mind throughout the summer.  When I called to try and start the process of reserving slots, they told me that they were filled already, which surprised me a little since it was still several months away and it had not been close to being filled when I checked a couple of months beforehand.

Not to be deterred, I started to check out other options for doing the tour.  The Harvard tour centered on using Icelandair, so I checked on their website.  I found that they offered many tour package options of their own, including building your own tour itinerary.  It turned out that we could build an itinerary very close to what the Harvard tour was going to do (minus the academic lecturers coming along) and pick a schedule that fit better with our needs than the Harvard tour.

After consulting with my friends, I was set to put the package together.  The website let you pick from their hotel options, their flight options and a long list of packaged tour activities.  So we built our agenda to fly out of JFK Airport, pre-book our airport transfers, stay at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, and select three tour excursions (including one extending into the evening to look for the Northern Lights).  It was easy to do, gave us the departure date that worked better than the Harvard date, and even came in at significantly less than the Harvard package price (due to one less tour excursion and fewer meals provided.  Once booked, we only had to book our positioning flights for New York and we would be set.  I also had one adjustment to make:  rather than sit in the Economy section of the Icelandair flights, I paid a surcharge to upgrade to the Economy Comfort section.  It wouldn't be Business Class (which I thought would only be of marginal value over the benefits of Economy Comfort).

We booked early-morning departures from the West Coast (me from SFO and my friends from LAX) into JFK.  Conveniently, United and Icelandair use the same terminal at JFK, so upon arrival, we did not have to leave the security area to get to our Icelandair gate.  We just had to make sure and handle the passport check at the gate prior to boarding.  Our flight to Keflavik Airport/Reykjavik did not depart until 10 pm, so we just hung out in United's space.  One benefit of Economy Comfort is use of the lounges, but we stuck with the United Lounge, since I had access to the Global First Lounge.

Another benefit of economy Comfort is use of a separate boarding line.  Initially, they started boarding the Economy section.  However, after a few minutes, a separate agent began boarding the Business Class and economy Comfort passengers.  One of the things I was confused about was where I was sitting.  On the website and seating chart websites, there is Business Class (called Saga Class) with 2+2 seating, Economy Comfort with 3+3 seating with the middle seat blocked, and then regular Economy with full 3+3 seating.  I was assigned (in both directions) a seat in the 2+2 seating area.  Upon boarding, I discovered why.  On the seating websites, the Icelandair 757 planes are described as having 6 rows of Saga Class, 12 rows of economy Comfort, and the rest as Economy.  Perhaps to adjust for demand (I don't know if this was seasonal or permanent), the designate Saga Class and Economy Comfort Class rows were fewer than the expected number.  They ended the Saga Class section with a curtain divider after row 4.  So my seat was normally a Saga Class seat (wider than the Economy seat).  And looking towards the back of the plane, I could see that Economy Comfort did not go back to row 19.  My added seating bonus was that no one ended up sitting next to me!

I should note at this point that Icelandair is very strict on luggage sizing, particularly if the flight is running full.  If the rollaboard does not meet the European standard (which is 5 cm smaller than the U.S. standard, they will gate-check the bag (there is a sizer at the gate).  I had feared this might be the case and purposely crammed a five-day trip into my smaller 20-inch rollaboard and had no problems.

Our overnight flight was going to time in at a quick 4 hours and 50 minutes.  At best, I was hoping for a quick nap.  With Economy Comfort, I also received in-flight food for free (anything I wanted from the buy-on-board menu) and free earphones.  They also let us off the plane before the Economy passengers disembarked.

It's a little bit of a walk from the non-Schengen gates, passport control and  the Schengen gates to baggage claim.  Icelandair was pretty quick on the baggage delivery, so I had pulled my friends' luggage from the carousel by the time we met up.  From there, it was straight out to the buses.  Our printed vouchers allowed us to bypass the tickets line.  Outside, it was dark and there were two buses loading up for the transfer to the city.  Once we figured out which was the company matching our tickets, we were soon off for the 45-minute ride into Reykjavik.  The bus would drop all passengers at their designated hotel.  We ended up being the last stop.

As part of purchasing the tour components through Icelandair, our hotel was supposed to have our rooms available for early check-in (by 10:00 am at the latest).  We arrived at the hotel around 9:00 am.  After a about an hour. my friends were able to go to their room.  For some reason, my room took a bit longer.  In the meantime, I confirmed that they had my Hilton number on file with the reservation (I had to call it in separately after making the reservation through the Icelandair package).  They had it, but their system did not talk directly to the Hilton main system, so they did not know I had Hilton Diamond status.  After they verified my status in the back room, they gave me a key to access the Executive Lounge, where I waited a little more for my room.  Breakfast service was still out in the lounge, but I had already had breakfast at the buffet in the main restaurant.  The lounge also had a very generous evening selection of hot and cold finger foods and happy-hour beverages.

My single person room was small but perfectly fine.

To start off our Iceland adventure, we signed up for an afternoon tour of Reykjavik.  The minibus stopped by the hotel on schedule to take us to the central terminal for Reykjavik Excursions, where we found the bus for our tour.  The metropolitan area of Reykjavik has a population of about 220,000 (two-thirds of the population of Iceland and less than half the population of the city of San Francisco) and so didn't feel very dense.  Buses were the only form of mass transit and, and there were a few 4-lane expressway roads in and out of the city.  We stopped at The Pearl, a facility build atop water tanks on a hill, for a city view, as well as Hallgrimskirkja Church, and the house where Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev met once.

 After our tour, the bus took everyone back to our respective hotels.  Since it had been a long day, we decided that the Executive Lounge food would be enough for dinner and then called it a night.

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast in the main restaurant (it came with our hotel room rate package).  Soon after, the Reykjavik Excursions bus came to take us back to tour bus central to board our bus for the Reykjanes Peninsula and Blue Lagoon tour.  The weather started out a little cloudy, but eventually turned out to be a very nice (but cold) day.

 We were allowed to climb this wedge out to almost the edge for a view out across the rift valley and the ocean.
The tour took us to some geothermal areas, lots of lava fields, a lobster bisque lunch, and several views of where the mid-Atlantic Ridge intersects and creates more of Iceland.

The last stop on this tour was the Blue Lagoon, where the bus would leave us if we wanted.  We could then take a bus back from there to our hotel.  The Blue Lagoon is a large, man-made geothermal pool facility.  The price of admission was not included in the tour, but we decided to go anyway since we were there.  You go in, shower, put on a swimsuit (your own or rented) and then go in and enjoy the waters.  There is food an drink to purchase (charged to your electronic wristband).

You just wander the different connected pool areas.  The bottom can be uneven with cobblestones or covered with a soft clay.  The temperature of the water changes as you approach or move away from the areas where the geothermally-heated water is fed into the pools.

When we returned to our hotel, we found a message from our tour operator for the next day (which wasn't Reykjavik Excursions) which said they were canceling all their excursions due to predicted inclement weather.  Unfortunately, this was the tour that included the search for the Northern Lights in the evening.  We called the tour provider to let them know that there was no alternate date we could do so we would be requesting a refund.  We then gathered brochures in the hotel lobby to look at other options.  We called Reykjavik Excursions and they were not yet canceling their daytime tours for the next day.  We decided we would wait until the morning when the local tour desk opened to see what we could book as a substitute activity.

Come morning, we were among the first in line at the tour desk.  We decided that we needed to do the Golden Circle Tour, which is the most popular highlights tour.  It was the same tour route we were going to do with the other tour company but would not include the Northern Lights activity.
The Golden Circle tour included a stop at a greenhouse farm, a geyser park with the Icelandic version of Old Faithful (Strokkur, a geyser with a regular eruption schedule), the Skogafoss waterfalls and ├×ingvellir National Park, with another view of a Mid-Atlantic Ridge rift valley..

 Our day started out overcast but fairly dry. As the day progressed and our altitude increased, the weather became wetter and windier.  After lunch, we had two more stops and both in the midst of extremely windy and wet weather.  It was a challenge to walk to some of the viewing sites, and despite getting totally wet, we persevered, if only to take a few quick photos.

Upon our return to the hotel, we went back tot he Tour Desk to make or bus reservations for our airport transfer the next day.

The next day was our departure day, but the flight was not scheduled for departure until 4:00 pm.  We had enough time to head back into central Reykjavik for more sightseeing.  The hotel has a nice service where you can sign out for a free bus pass good for up to four people.  This made getting into the center of town very easy and quick.  Fortunately, although it was cloudy, there was no precipitation.

We returned to the hotel in time to retrieve our luggage (The hotel granted me a late check-out as a Diamond member) and head downstairs early.  We were early enough to catch the bus that was a half-hour before our scheduled reservation.  We had a stop at the central tour bus terminal to fill up the bus with passengers, and then we were off.

The Economy Comfort/Saga Class check-in was fast (no lines).  There was not priority lane at security but the queue was not long.  It turned out that our flight was delayed by an hour because of a late inbound aircraft.

There is only one Icelandair Lounge and it's located in the Schengen area before passport control.  Their rules said that I am not allowed guests, so my friends went ahead through passport control while I hung out for a little while in the Saga Lounge.  The hot/savory food was just okay, but the dessert offerings were several and plentiful.  When I had my fill, I went through passport control (not much of a line) and rejoined my friends.

When we finally boarded, I was again in a 2+2 seat in Economy Comfort.  The food menu choices were the same as the outbound flight.  When we landed in New York, it was colder than it ever was in Iceland.  Global Entry got me through immigration and customs quickly.  We headed into Manhattan for an overnight stay (the evening arrival of the flight made it difficult to connect to transcontinental flights to the West Coast).  On Presidents' Day, we headed back to West Coast to complete our Icelandic holiday.

01 March 2015

Tokyo, by way of Palm Springs

I had tentative plans to go to Tokyo over the MLK Holiday in January.  One reason was that I had entered a lottery for the opportunity to dine at Noma's pop-up restaurant in Tokyo.  Unfortunately, I did not get picked, but I had to leave the option open in case I was picked from the wait list (I never was).  Later, it came up that some friends of mine decided to get married at the start of that holiday weekend in Palm Springs, so I would have to work that into my travel plans.

As it turned out, when I went to actually book the flights, I obtained a lower airfare going through Palm Springs than if I had just booked a round-trip fare between San Francisco and Tokyo.  The hitch was that I would have to return through Palm Springs (or at least book flights that did so.  My routing went as follows:  SFO-PSP(stopover)-SFO-NRT(Tokyo Narita Airport) (stopover)-SFO-PSP-SFO.  Practically, on the return, I could just clear customs at SFO and then go home, ignoring the two remaining segments.

I had a late-afternoon flight to Palm Springs after work.  I had never flown to Palm Springs before.  They only use regional jets, although my flight had the bigger plane with a First Class section and Economy Plus.  I actually met up with another friend going to the wedding, so we took a straightforward cab ride to the hotel.

The Rivera Palm Springs Resort rooms were much nicer than I had expected them to be,  They were modern, good-sized and the bathrooms had both a free-standing tub and large walk-in shower.

I spent two nights in Palm Springs.  The only real touring around I did was on bicycle one morning.  The day after the wedding, I left in the early morning to begin my trek to Tokyo.  My 6 am flight got me to SFO with plenty of time to enjoy breakfast at the American Express Centurion Lounge.  Afterwards, I headed to the United Global First Lounge for more food before boarding my flight to Tokyo.

My flight to Tokyo arrived on time and there was not much of a wait through customs, so I was out of the arrivals area in no time.  Lately, I have been using the Skyliner train and local transit to get into Tokyo because of the slightly lower cost and quicker time to destination.  However, for this trip, I decided to stay at the Shangri-La Tokyo, located right next to Tokyo Station.  Therefore, the most efficient way to go into town would be the JR Narita Express train.  I discovered before arriving in Tokyo that the Narita Express has a new tourist fare offer -- almost half off a one-way ticket from the airport to Tokyo, as long as you are a foreign tourist (The return fare would still be at full-fare).  Given that was my destination anyway, I was sold.  I went up to the ticket desk, showed my passport, and asked for a round-trip ticket with the special fare.  The agent understood perfectly, and I received my reserved-seat tickets for my rides on the train.

My stay in Tokyo was only going to be for two nights, so I did not have much planned.  Given I had been a few times before, I wasn't trying to fill up an agenda with much sightseeing.  My plans revolved around checking out a new hotel, trying a new restaurant or two, and some shopping.  My only pressing event on my arrival day was an 8:30 pm dinner across town.

I arrived at Tokyo Station and proceeded to try and locate which exit to use (the station is huge) to get closest to the Shangri-La.  I generally knew where the hotel was situated relative to the station (east side), so I followed a path that led me to the east side and then headed north.  It turned out that the northernmost east side exit brought me the closest to the hotel building, which, while not attached, was just across the street.

The lobby agent took my name and saw that I was booked to stay on the Horizon Club Level (Executive Lounge Level).  I was led to the elevators and shown to the Lounge.  I was directed to have a seat in the lounge while they pulled up my materials.  It was almost 5pm and tea time was about to end, so I quickly grabbed some snacks while I waited.  They also brought me my drink of choice (fresh orange juice). A lounge agent came back in a few minutes to my seat and provided me with my room key and overview of the facilities at the hotel available to me.  I was then shown my room, which was a standard room located on the Club floor.

View of the Lounge from my seat

The room was spacious, with a nice view looking eastward.  Everything had electronic controls.  There were several plug outlets located throughout the room, making it easy to charge up mobile devices.

The bathroom was located on the other side of a window. The tub/shower section was just to the other side of the window.  The sink and toilet facilities were beyond that. While the general setup is similar to other hotels I've stayed at in Asia, the combination tub/shower sub-room is distinctly Japanese.

The staff at the Lounge were always very friendly and helpful.  The hotel had set up my dinner reservation for that evening at an outside restaurant at my request and provided me with a written letter confirmation.  They also tried to help with additional reservations, once I had decided on some options for the following evening.

The Lounge food was very well done.  Breakfasts included a nice selection of cold continental offerings, as well as the traditional Japanese breakfast dishes.  They also allowed you to order Western-style hot food from a menu (eggs, waffles, etc.), which was a very nice offering.

My restaurant for that first evening was called Edition.  It was located across town in the Mid-town/Roppongi Hills section of Tokyo.  It was only a couple of subway trains away and it took about a half-hour to get there.  I selected the restaurant because of the modernist techniques that seemed to be used for preparing the dishes, as well as the option of selecting preferred ingredients and the chef creating a menu of dishes around those selections.

For the full write-up of my dining experience, click here.

For my second night, I had targeted a tempura restaurant called Fukamachi.  However, the hotel found out that they happened to be closed on that Sunday that I was there.  So, I just settled for lounge food for my second dinner in Tokyo, which was fine.

On my morning of departure, I approached one of the Lounge agents and asked if I could have a later check-out.  It turned out they had already set me up for a later departure based upon the flight information I had given them (3 hours from flight departure time).  As it was, I wanted to check out one hour earlier than they had allotted for me.

Given the proximity of the hotel to the train station, I was on the platform one train early from my scheduled train.  As all seats are reserved, you really can't get on an earlier train unofficially, so I just waited.  I had plenty off time built in so that I could do some duty free shopping, so I was not in any hurry and the trains in Japan are very dependable.

Upon arrival at the airport, I discovered that things were changed around a little bit.  They moved the Global First/Global Services check-in counter to a small room that is used for ANA First Class check-in (Zone Z).  United was given a counter station to use there, and after checking in, there was a separate direct entrance to the First Class security area (which I was already familiar with from a different entrance nearby).  I cleared immigration quickly and had plenty of time to shop and to enjoy the food services of the Global First Lounge.

My flight arrived on time in the late morning into SFO.  My continuing flight to Palm Springs was not scheduled until around 4pm.  After a brief stop in the Arrivals Lounge, I decided that I would head home -- at a minimum, I could drop all my stuff off since I was already outside security after clearing customs.

Once I got home, I could have just stayed there and ended my travels for the long weekend.  However, the weather was nice throughout California, and I really didn't have anything pressing, so I decided to go ahead and ride out the rest of my itinerary for the day.  I headed back to the airport mid-afternoon and stopped back in at the American Express Centurion Lounge for some lunch/dinner.  My flight to Palm Springs left on time.  Upon disembarking the plane, I told the flight attendant up front that I would be riding back with them (as the plane was scheduled to make the return flight to SFO).  However, on the return, I would be sitting towards the back instead of up front, as my upgrade did not clear.

Upon reboarding about 45 minutes later, I said hi and headed back to my seat.  Later, both flight attendants came back and I tried to explain why I was doing what I was doing.  And even though I was not sitting in First Class, they were kind enough to bring back to me one of the snack boxes from First Class, which I greatly appreciated since it was really dinnertime now on the flight.  Our on-time arrival back into SFO finally closed out my long travel day and  holiday weekend.