Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Quick (Picture-less) Trip Reports: Las Vegas, Washington DC

I am an absolutely terrible travel blogger, good thing I have a day job.  We've been on a handful of trips recently and every single time, without fail, I have forgotten to bring my camera.  But it's a good thing that our phones have cameras - unless they're stolen in which case you're left with no pictures at all.

So purely for the sake of documenting so that we can remember where we've been 10 years from now, a couple brief (picture-less) updates to share:

Las Vegas (June 2013) - celebrating my 30th birthday in my favorite city in the world

  • Mandarin Oriental
    • Finally got around to staying at the Mandarin Oriental, and it is by far my new favorite hotel in Vegas.  Not the best fit if you're looking for a party-oriented trip, but more of a relaxing getaway
    • Was initially concerned about lack of casino at hotel, but ended up not being a big deal at all as MO is a 5-minute walk to Aria
    • Very relaxing (and quiet) pool area, again for those not looking for a huge party scene
    • Spa was top-notch, especially the shared facilities and views from them
  • e by Jose Andres
    • 30th birthday dinner was spent at e by Jose Andres.  All I have to say is EAT HERE.  By far, the best dining experience I have ever had.  It's a private room in the back of Jaleo restaurants at the Cosmopolitan, 2 seatings per night, 8 seats per seating.  Roughly 25 courses are prepared in front of you, and pretty much each one is delicious
    • They take pride in accommodating dietary restrictions - among our table of 8, they made completely custom substitutions for 3 of us (gluten-free, vegetarian, pregnant)
    • What other restaurant will make you feel like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by sending you golden tickets in advance?  

Washington DC (August 2013) - because waiting 4 months to go on honeymoon was simply too long, we booked a mini-honeymoon over Labor day weekend

  • Park Hyatt Washington DC
    • I was surprised to find a lot of good hotel options in DC, but settled on the Park Hyatt because we were keen on having dinner at Blue Duck Tavern
    • Overall, we were very satisfied with our stay.  Daily breakfast was taken as room service but the same menu as served in Blue Duck Tavern.  Short rib hash is a must try
    • Location is quite good, approximately a 10 minute walk to the nearest subway station
    • Rooms are very stylish and modern (as expected with a Park Hyatt), bathrooms were a highlight
    • Only negative comment is that the pool/hot tub facilities were only average
  • Restaurants
    •  Blue Duck Tavern - very, very good and definitely lived up to the hype
    • Zatynya - one of Jose Andres' restaurants and we were able to utilize Restaurant Week menu for special deals.  Felt like this was pretty good, but service was a bit chaotic during the dinner rush
    • Brasserie Beck - favorite restaurant of the three we went to for dinner.  The mussels are a must


Monday, April 22, 2013

Bali-Tree: Thai Airways First Class BKK-NRT, UA First Class NRT-SFO


We left the lounge and headed to the gate and the boarding process was a breeze.  From check-in through to boarding, Thai really does the best job of acknowledging premium cabin passengers, and could be somewhat of a case study for some of our airlines at home.  I'm looking at you, United.

TG 642
Seat 2A

The flight from BKK-NRT was scheduled for a brief 6 hours and while I went in thinking I was going to stay up and really enjoy the experience, tiredness and food coma quickly took a hold of me and I spent the majority of the flight asleep.  The sum total of the time spent awake during this flight couldn't have been more than 45 minutes to an hour.  It's actually a good learning experience, since in the future if I really want to experience a specific airline, I'll need to make sure it's a daytime flight. 

The reason that I wish I had spent more time awake was due to the fact that this particular flight would be on one of the 777-300ER's leased from Jet Airways.  That meant that the first class cabin would feature suites with closing doors.  While there's certainly a "cool" factor with having your own private door on a plane, we both felt like the cabin seemed quite dated and lacked some of the updates found on the newer TG first class cabins.  However, the bed on the plane was very comfortable, and in the end I really did appreciate the closed suite as it gives everything a different feeling that allows you to relax without anyone looking in or being distracted by foot traffic going by.

Shortly after takeoff we were served a small snack of an appetizer and soup, but I wasn't hungry at all having eaten half of the things on the lounge menu already.  Shortly before landing, another light meal was served, although it must not have been very memorable since I can't recall how a single thing tasted.

One final thought on Thai - I'm curious if anyone knows just how many different amenity kits they have in circulation. On four different flights (2 in first, 2 in business), I received four completely different brands of amenity kit bag, filled with four completely different brands of toiletries.  I guess TG isn't big on any exclusive partnerships from the amenity kit standpoint.

777-300ER first class suite

small meal served after takeoff

do not disturb!

mood lighting
After landing, we had a long 8+ hour layover scheduled in NRT and while my friend decided to check out the city, I was more than content to park my butt at the lounges.  The first stop was the United Global First lounge, which is located on the upper floor of the United Club.  Given the early morning arrival, I was one of the first people there and was nice having the place to myself for a couple hours. However, I didn't find the food spread here very appetizing, and eventually made my way over to the ANA Suites lounge.

Once there, I grabbed a private cubicle and was actually quite impressed as it's probably the nicest cubicle I've been in at an airport lounge.  There is a very large TV and workspace area and comfortable seat with footstool, which provided a great place to relax and nap on/off.  The food options at the lounge are also pretty decent, with a full noodle bar and some hot options such as curry and stir fry available, along with finger foods such as sandwiches and sushi.  I also took a shower and was given a small shower amenity kit with Shisheido shampoo/soap to use.  I ended up using the small packets of generic soap they provided and added the nice stuff to the stockpile I had already accumulated along the way.

United Global First lounge

minimal food spread at United lounge

ANA Suites cubicle

entertaining view from the ANA lounge
UA 838
Seat 2K

My flight from NRT-SFO was the last flight of my trip, and also the one that I had been checking non-stop during my trip to see if I could swap out for something better.  In true first-world problems fashion I was dreading the flight because it'd be on United, albeit in first class.  I was even looking for alternative routings up to the minute I left the lounge for boarding, and as you can probably tell had really low expectations for the flight.

Well, to my surprise, United blew away my expectations for this flight.  Does that mean it was as good as my ANA or TG flights?  Not even close.  But the food, seat, and amenity kit, were much better than I was expecting.  And to top it off, the part I was worried about was the service, ended up being the best part of the flight as I found it to be especially good and left me pleasantly surprised.  Perhaps I've become a bit jaded or influenced by the number of negative things I've heard recently about United, but I personally have yet to encounter anything in-flight that left me scathing (only thing in recent memory was on the ground which was a 12+ hour delay for a SFO-LAX flight when United's computers decided to take the day off).  Hopefully this doesn't jinx me for any upcoming flights, but I thought that I'd thrown in a good word for United when it was certainly deserved.

making a mess in my seat

fully stocked amenity kit

United's attempt at a Kaiseki meal

can't go wrong with an ice cream sundae

Bali-Tree: Thai Airways BKK First Class Lounge and Spa


After our 10-day trip it was time to pack up and head home.  It's funny because we met quite a few people on our trip, most from Europe and Australia, that were doing the extended-travel thing.  Some had already been on the road for as long as 6 months to even an entire year.  But for me, beginning a couple days prior to leaving after having been gone for about a week, I already started to feel antsy and my mind-set began transitioning back into work mode, even spending some time checking work emails during the day.  I guess us Americans have somehow been brain-washed into feeling guilty when not at work.

Anyways, we left our villa and headed for the airport which was about an hour-long drive with traffic.  The airport lounge options in the Bali airport aren't great, so would recommend heading over at the last possible moment possible, but do take into account potential delays due to traffic. 

The ride to Bangkok was fairly uneventful, with the highlight being the fact that I could spend a few hours kicking back and finishing up season 1 of House of Cards, which by the way is a fantastic show and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new TV series.

I was really looking forward to our layover in Bangkok as I had gotten to sample the Thai First Class ground service a couple times before now.  I had even chosen to forgo the first available flight out to NRT to experience a longer layover, which would definitely have gotten me yelled at if traveling with my fiance.  Luckily, my friend completely understood, since the longer layover would also mean that we got to try out one of Thai's 777-30ER planes leased from Jet Airways which features first class suites with closing doors.

Once we landed in BKK, consistent with my other transfer experiences, everything was handled for us and we literally could switch off our brains for the next several hours.  We were picked up in a buggy and driven to the security checkpoint near the first class lounge.  Because we had eaten on the plane, we decided to go straight for the massage.  A few different options are offered, but since we both wanted to shower anyways we decided to go for the 1-hour full body massage with oil.  It's a short walk over to the spa, and once you walk in you truly do feel like you are at a real spa, not just in a nice smelling room within an airport.

After enjoying a cold towel and welcome drink, we were shown to our treatment rooms and the massage began.  While the actual massage itself isn't necessarily the best ever, it's still very relaxing and was a great respite from thinking about our long journey home.  Afterwards, you're given the opportunity to shower and then relax for a few minutes in the waiting area before heading back to the lounge.

welcome drink and cold towel

anxiously waiting to get my massage on


treatment room - not given chance to use the tub

Once back at the lounge, I took the opportunity to chow down since I really do like the food served in there.  I viewed this as somewhat of a last hoorah before heading back home and having to eat more sensibly.  The service in the lounge is great, and if you look up with even somewhat of a hungry or thirsty twinkle in your eye, someone will stop by with a menu to see if you'd like to order anything.  The menus are all loaded on iPad's which was actually a bit awkward at first, since the lounge attendant will wait for you while you make your choices instead of giving you time to kick back and peruse.

I ended up trying many, many, many things on the menu,  Definitely too many, since by the end I felt absolutely disgusting.  Some of the highlights were the pork with coconut rice, beef curry, and the beef steak with fries all of which were cooked very well and very quickly.

first class lounge

beef steak

beef curry
After eating, it was time to leave and it's honestly a rare feeling to actually be sad to leave the airport to hop on a flight.  The 4+ hour layover we had went by extremely quickly, which is a testament to the greatness of the first class experience here.  For all future travel through Asia, this will continue to be my #1 choice when given the choice between various layovers locations.  Next on my list is to experience the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt and I've read that is it on par with this one.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bali-Tree: Bali Part II: Gili Trawangan, Seminyak


The next stop was the Gili Islands where we had booked a villa on Gili-Trawangan or Gili-T as most people call it for our 2 night stay.  The fast boat took off from Padangbai and took about an hour and a half.  It was a very comfortable, air-conditioned ride and was definitely worth the price over the ferry which would have taken over 5 hours.  The Gili Islands are a great place to unplug since there are no vehicles allowed, so the primary modes of transport are walking, biking, or donkey cart.  The first day we spent here we primarily explored and enjoyed some relaxation and swimming at our villa and at the beach.  The beaches on Gili-T were probably the best that we found across our trip through Bali, but with one major problem.  Everyone on the beach is in ridiculously good shape, like something out of a MTV music video.  So for us fatty Americans, we were definitely feeling a bit self-conscious until we eventually learned to embrace the fact that we probably had the biggest stomachs on the entire island.

We stayed at the Gili Villas which is a compound with four 2-BR villas, and our villa easily accommodated our group of 5.  Each villa has 2 bungalows with a bedroom and en-suite bathroom.  There's also a huge living room area with TV and DVD player and a good sized private pool.  They also provide a full kitchen, although we didn't use it and was only used by the staff that came to cook breakfast each morning which is included in the price.  The price for the villa is much more than what you'd pay at a local hostel/homestay, but for us it was worth it for the level of comfort and privacy it provided.

beach at Gili-T - make sure to bring your 6-pack

grilled barracuda and snapper skewers from the night market

our villa in Gili-T

bungalow #1

outdoor bed

kitchen and sitting area

bungalow #2

On our second day we decided to do one last dive at Hans Reef and saw some interesting sea life including more turtles, lion fish, and eels.  The current during our dive happened to be extremely strong so we weren't able to spend much time at the reef before getting blown away.  There are a lot of dive shops on Gili-T, but just pick the one that appeals to you most since there is no need to negotiate or shop around for prices as all the dive stores on the island have agreed-upon prices for diving.

Below are a couple sample videos from our dive along with some pictures.  With a couple hours of raw footage we didn't want to bore everyone, so we're planning to edit later on into a compilation.  All photos and video shot using GoPro Hero3 camera.

After enjoying our 2+days in Gili-T we were sad to go, but were excited to head back to Seminyak for the last there days of our trip.  We decided that trying the donkey cart was a must, and used it to carry our luggage to the boat dock.  The fast boat back to Padangbai took a bit longer this time (almost 2 hours) and after an hour+ car ride we arrived back in Seminyak.  We had used to rent a 5-BR villa and it worked out quite well.  I would recommend using this type of approach especially when traveling with a group that wants to all stay in one place.

During the last few days in Seminyak we focused on relaxing before heading back home.  If shopping is your thing, there are a ton of shops in the area that sell clothing, artwork, and arts & crafts.  Massages are also much cheaper than back home and would recommend getting as many as you can while there.  We considered doing a day trip to Ubud but got lazy and ended up mostly hanging out in Kuta and Seminyak, but we heard that the monkey forest and zoo are both interesting and worth seeing if you go.  We also had a chance to check out Ku De Ta and Potato Head which are two of the cool hangout spots in the area.  Overall, we enjoyed Potato Head much more and thought that the scene and vibe there was much better.

riding the donkey cart is a must

babi guling

hanging out at ku de ta during the day

ku de ta

beach outside ku de ta

potato head at night time