Sunday, December 18, 2016

Добро пожаловать на борт Аэрофлот! Welcome Aboard Aeroflot!

Have you ever had someone come back after flying on an airline simply ranting and raving about their experience, making you salivate at the thought of trying it out yourself?  Well, that happened to me, my parents having flown Aeroflot on several roundtrips between the United States and Greece.  I asked them to compare to flying on fellow SkyTeam member MEA, and they said it was better, by several levels of magnitude.  Well, I am very protective of MEA, so I had to put Aeroflot down on the list as another airline to fly, and quick.  So here it is, I finally made it on Aeroflot, from Athens, Greece, to Los Angeles, CA via Moscow, Russia.

So here I am, back at my home office just North of Salt Lake City, a few weeks after my grand trip that took me and the family from Utah to New York City for a night, a 7-day Trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, a few days in London, an overnight stay in Athens, Greece; Moscow, Russia; and Los Angeles, CA.  Our flights back from Athens were originally supposed to be just an overnight stay in Istanbul, flying on Turkish Airlines, but with the recent attempted coup d'etat and the ban of all flights to and from the United States and Turkey, we had the chance to cancel our tickets and fly another way home, and that's where this begins.  We had found a reasonable alternative out of Athens on the same date as originally planned, this time via Aeroflot through Moscow and Los Angeles, both overnight stays.  Granted, the hotel stays ended up being more than the next lowest fare, but, this was something I had to do, I had to try Aeroflot.

We woke up that morning at the Sofitel Athens Airport, across the street from the main terminal entrance.  Mom and I were running on maybe 3 hours of sleep, but that was OK, we spent the night at the hotel bar with the family from the village, and it was epic.  So there we were, after breakfast, bleary eyed, but hyped up.  Ground services for Aeroflot in Athens is handled by Goldair, and they did a fantastic job of checking us in, even gave us a few extra allotments for carryons due to my parents needing wheelchair assistance.  We were directed to a sitting area to wait for our wheelchair pushers to meet us.  Well, the waiting took forever, and they never showed up, and boarding time was getting close, so we hoofed it to the security queue and went to the gate.  Well, we made it to the gate and the staff there was wondering where we were as the wheelchair pushers had called about 30 seconds prior to say we were not where we were supposed to be, so we simply told them they were late, and it was no big deal, the gate was close by anyways.  That being said, they scanned our boarding passes and let us board first.

Boarding went by fairly quickly, despite more than three quarters of the passengers having oversize carryons and a LOT of fur coats and wraps.  Where we were going, they would need them anyways.  Luckily, for me, there was only one other person sitting in my block of three seats, and she was in the aisle seat whilst I had the window (yay me!).  With everyone seated and the more gorgeous than normal Russian flight attendants doing their safety demo, we were pushed back out onto Athens' not so busy ramp.  The only other planes in our portion of the terminal were a Turkish Airlines 737-800 that just pulled in, an Emirates Boeing 777-300 and an unmarked Airbus A319.

Our aircraft was a brand new one in the Aeroflot fleet, a Boeing 737-800 (registered VQ-BWC, named after Russian historian Sergey Soloviev) new build delivered to Aeroflot in June 2015, the 41,210th Boeing 737 off the line in Renton, WA.  She still had that new plane smell to her and a very new cabin.  Normally, I loathe Boeing 737 flights of longer than an hour or two, as I just cant get comfortable on them due to my height and size, always requiring a seat belt extension, but this ride to Moscow was shaping up and promising to be a good one, seat belt extender notwithstanding.  We rolled out to the departure runway and with hardly a second to wait were at full power and blasted off out of the Cradle of Civilization for the high Russian plains that Moscow is situated on.

I have to admit, I was amazed at how attentive the inflight crew was and the level of service for a 4 hour flight.  In the United States, on a 4 hour flight, there is no meal service, hell you're lucky you can get a small cup of soda thrown at ya with a $7 mini can of Pringles.  On Aeroflot, we had a full beverage service 3 times, and a full dinner service as well about a quarter of the way into the flight.  In Coach Class, of all things!  I spent most of the flight writing in my travel journal and listening to music on my phone, while the flight attendants kept me stocked with Coca Cola and water.  I had left my window shade up and caught a few glimpses outside during the flight and snapped pictures of the winglet and sunset before it got dark the further north we got.

The flight went by pretty quickly, and before I knew it, we were starting our descent into Moscow, slowly, but surely, and took a winding pattern into Sheremetyevo Airport.  Despite the winding down and anticipation of getting off in a new airport that I have never been to before, we managed to arrive a few minutes early, but had to park on a remote stand away from the terminal due to no gate space.  Looking out on the ramp, I could tell it was a busy night.  Sukhoi Super Jet 100's, 737's, A320's, A330's, and 777's were in various stages of arrival or departure and we took a spot away from the terminal in between another 737 and the Skyteam Alliance branded Boeing 777-300 for Aeroflot.  She was on her way to Tokyo that night, and I thought to myself, it'd be nice to be on her, but...the prize bird for this journey was 14 hours away from boarding time.

Deboarding was via airstairs for the upwardly mobile passengers, not us.  We waited until everyone was off, then we were guided to the R1 forward entry door on the starboard side, usually where caterers do their thing.  We were guided onto the lift, then down to the ramp where we were loaded into a van that took us directly to the transit connections desk for our connecting flight to Los Angeles.  Amazingly, there were not that many people connecting off of our flight, and we were the only ones at the transit desk and therefor were processed and on our way in less than 5 minutes.  The wheelchair folks were fantastic as well, taking my parents to the V Express capsule hotel located within the sterile area of the terminal for our 12 hours of rest and relaxation, then those same folks meeting us again in the morning and taking us to our departure gate.  Amazing service, and they were tipped heavily.

After lounging around and grabbing an early morning breakfast at TGI Fridays (in Moscow of all places, who would of thought?), we picked up a few trinkets and then were gathered up for boarding.  Again, we were the first onboard, and were helped to our seats by the ever attentive, gorgeous, and capable flight attendants, who also helped us stow our carryons (even my duffel bag full of books).  Our stay in Moscow was pleasant, inviting, and downright incredible.  It's now on my list of places I must return to, but for now, time to get settled in for the long haul to sunny Los Angeles.

Our plane was the 7 year old Airbus A330-200 (registered VQ-BBF, named after Russian diplomat and poet Alexander Griboyedov) leased to Aeroflot.  In pristine condition after its flight that morning from St. Petersburg, we settled in and got comfortable for the 14 hour jaunt over the Arctic and down through central Canada.  I have to interject here, the A330-200 was specifically built for flights like these, during its design phase in the mid 1990's it was specified to have a range capable of doing Los Angeles-Moscow or Vancouver-Athens with ease.  Airbus also designed it in conjuction with the four engined Airbus A340, with a wider cabin than the Boeing widebodies, and let me tell you, on a 14 hour flight, that extra six inches of shoulder space per seat makes a world of difference. In fact, it was so comfortable, me and Dad sat through the entire flight, not getting up for any single reason, not even to stretch, as we normally do on shorter flights in the cramped Boeings.  My Mom on the other hand, due to her bad knees, had to get up and stretch every so often.  Susie, in her diminutive size, curled up on her seat like a cat and either watched movies, played games or passed out in total comfort.

Even on a plane as large as the A330, boarding did not take long at all, and before we knew it, we were being pushed back and on our way out.  Sheremetyevo is a big airport, and it took a few minutes to get out to the departure runway, luckily we were one of a few planes taking at that time, lining up between an Air Astana A320 and another Aeroflot Boeing 777.  Lined up on runway 24L, we throttled up to full power and the Rolls Royce Trent engines rocketed us up and out of Moscow, and with a few slight turns we were pointed north and on our way up to the Arctic crossings.  Plugging my phone into the seatback power unit and turning on the tunes while leaving the IFE pegged on the inflight moving map was my idea of a good ride, as well as catching up in my journal.

Leveling off to cruise at 31,000 feet (FL310), the flights attendants got down to the service.  As with the flight from Athens the day before, the crew made their round up and down the aisles looking after us passengers and there were hourly drink services.  Eventually, I did wonder why I didnt have to get up and relieve myself, but, I didnt so I stayed put and enjoyed the ride.  The first meal service was a lunch service, served about 2 hours into the flight, somewhere around Murmansk, Russia.  Since it was lunchtime, I was thinking it would be a sandwich and salad kind of serving, but no.  On the tray was a starter of mussels with celery and grilled sweet peppers on a salad, A bread plate (yes, a bread plate in Coach) with a roll and rye bread with Butter and a wedge of Brie, a berry cheesecake, and for the main we had a choice of either Chicken breast with oyster sauce, or lamb with buckwheat and broccoli.  Being low on my gout medication, I passed on the lamb and went with the chicken.  To my shock and surprise, it was tasty.  I haven't had a meal service like this or attention to detail from the flight attendants since the days of TWA.  In fact, my parents and friends were absolutely spot on right about Aeroflot.  They really are that amazing.  They are now in my top 3 airlines for North America to Europe.

Up past the coast of Northern Russia and over the Barents Sea, we turned to the West and the Norwegian Sea we crossed into the part of the Northern Hemisphere of perpetual twilight, with a thin band of sunlight that never faded the entire trip over Greenland and the earliest part of our turn down into Canada.  During most of this stage of the flight, the flight attendants still roamed the cabin every hour or so, but the cabin lights dimmed, allowing folks to sleep or watch the IFE in comfort.  I had my window shade up and kept the TV pegged on the inflight map while reading my new book or writing in my journal.  After my hand had cramped up, I stowed the journal and unfolded my laptop to watch some movies (the IFE had a huge selection to watch from, just nothing much that interested me enough to watch, or stuff that I have already seen).  My dad on the other hand, cranked his way through 5 movies (asleep through one of them), and was just chilling in his little cocoon of comfort.

We made landfall in Canada over Rankin Inlet, on the West coast of Hudson Bay, and continued our path down to the lower parts of the hemisphere.  The second meal service began while overflying Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and this service was just as large as the first, this time with mains consisting of either Chicken in carrot and tomato sauce with bulgur wheat and broccoli, or beef in black pepper sauce.  Seriously good stuff, and again, I was stuffed.  45 minutes later the trays were cleared and almost as soon as they were, we hit some rough air on the US/Canadian border into Montana, as if to welcome us to the United States.  Taking a glance on the geography below, it looked like there was a massive snowstorm that covered Montana, Idaho and Northern Nevada just a day or so before we flew over.  Gorgeous landscape, going from snow covered plateaus to desert over the West portion of the Great Basin National Park, then to the fertile coastline of Southern California and its palm trees, suntans, and gridlock traffic.

Once over Death Valley we turned West over the coast at Pismo Beach, and then another turn to the East  over the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga State Park, Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Alhambra (I can see our hotel for the night, the Langham Huntington Pasadena, on its hillside in the distance),  and our last turn onto final approach to the North runways at LAX.  We glided onto runway 24R and taxied around to our gate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal.  We have arrived, and in style!

In my opinion:  Aeroflot is a damn good airline, with service levels that eclipse most other airlines plying the skies between North America and Europe.  It is on par with the likes of MEA, Royal Jordanian, and British Airways.  The fares are also something else, right on par with Turkish Airlines as being the lowest fares across the pond, plus having the SkyTeam benefits we all know and recommend.  Definitely give them a try!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

London Calling! A stay at Europe's First Grand Hotel, the Langham Hotel

Y'all knew I couldn't go to London without staying at the Langham, knowing my addiction and passion (some say obsession) with the upscale brand.  But to stay at the flagship property, where Afternoon Tea was invented, where royalty stayed, where Allied planners first brainstormed the D-Day invasion to liberate Europe...well, I wasn't about to say no.  No way, no how, no chance.  Besides, it's a Langham, I knew I was going to be taken care of, and have an unforgettable stay.  The best part about this trip, I had my family in tow, so I they can see for themselves just how good Langham is.

A little history about the Langham.  It was built between 1863 and 1865 and is one of London's largest and best known Grand Hotels.  In fact, the Langham was the original Grand Hotel of Europe, with a fabled past, and very colorful future ahead of it.  It had the first hydraulic lifts in England, not to mention the first in a hotel, period.  Prominent figures such as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Napoleon III, and Toscanini have held residence here.  The hotel was a landmark during war as well, serving as first aid post and an armory during World War II.  The BBC ended up moving part of its broadcasting to the Langham after their broadcasting house across the street was bombed.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set some of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at the Langham.  Princess Diana was a frequent visitor, as were heads of more than a few Royal Families from around the world.

So here we were, in London, after a 7 day trek across the Atlantic on Cunard's Queen Mary 2.  A marvelous ship it was, and the crossing went by without a hitch.  So, why not stay at the original Grand Hotel of Europe at the end of the cruise?  Of course we will!  Plus, it would be my parents first time in luxury hotel, so it better be a Langham.  Our driver took us right up to the front door and the bellhops quickly got our luggage, greeted me by name (they must've read the 1865 tag on one of the suitcases), and gave us our luggage tag to give to the front desk for delivery to our room.  We've only been here a minute, and we're already being taken care of.  That's one of the hotel's trademarks, bespoke and all-encompassing care and service.

The package I had booked for this trip was the Family Getaway package, and it's a heck of a value.  You have accomodations in either a Family Room that sleeps 4 people on 3 beds (the third is either a rollaway cot or the pull out couch), English breakfast at either restaurant for the whole family, complimentary wi-fi (Susie's favorite reason for staying at a Langham), a VIP Tour of Hamley's, one of the oldest toy stores in the world (tours were not available the dates we were in town, though), complimentary Kidzania tickets for stays of 3 nights or more (Susie wasnt up for that, she wanted to see the city itself), and the London pass, which allows entrance to London attrations for discounts of up to 15%.  I liked everything about this package, but was slightly miffed that Hamley's wasn't running a tour this time around, as I seriously love old toy stores.  Oh well, there's always next time.

Check-In was a breeze, since I was already a Gateway-level member of the 1865 Loyalty Program. The room wasn't ready, so we decided to hang out in the award winning Artesian Bar, which has recently won the coveted "World's Best Bar" award on top of the other accolades.  About an hour later, they came and got me, handed me the keys to the room, and had me sign in and took my baggage slip.  Even though I travel to Europe somewhat frequently, I was slightly taken aback from how small the elevators were as we piled in.  I laughed and reminded myself this was Europe, everything is much smaller on this side of the pond.

Luckily, the room was not a far distance from the elevator, and walking into the room I was surprised by how spacious it was upon first glance.  The bedroom area is around 420 square feet alone, and there was plenty of room for the two Queen beds, plus a pull out couch that my Teenager said was one of the most comfortable she's EVER slept on.  High praise coming from someone I've molded into a world traveler in her own right.  Next to the TV was a plate of fruit and a huge bottle of water that Langham provides to all elite-tier 1865 members.  The view out the window was look right across Regent Street onto the All Souls Church to one side and the BBC headquarters next to it.  This particular part of London was incredibly blasted and damaged by the Axis towards the end of the Battle of Britain in October of 1940.  At that moment we found out the room had a doorbell, as it rang, and first the bellhop delivered our luggage AND set it up for us where we wanted it.  Next one of the housekeepers came and delivered a plate of snacks and drinks for the four of us.  What a hell of a way to start off our visit to London!  We unpacked what we needed for the 3 days in town, and stowed the rest of the luggage in the large closets hidden away in the entry.  The bathroom was nice as well, with marble throughout, the signature Langham bathrobes and slippers, and toiletries from the Chuan Spa. Even my parents were impressed, this was their first true multi-night stay in a Luxury Hotel.  We were exhausted and still trying to get our land legs back, plus it was going to be an early day the next day, so we grabbed a quick bite of fast food from McDonald's across the street and hit the sack.

Before heading out the next day we got to try breakfast in the also acclaimed Roux at the Landau, run by the superstar chef team of Albert & Michel Roux.  The breakfast didn't disappoint, fluffy omelettes and half dollar pancakes, in addition to the large bread, cheese, and yogurt buffet, and the ever-present English scones with clotted cream and various jams and preserves.  Just right for a long day running around London and spending hours at Harrods fighting our way through the crowds and leisurely browsing through a good majority of the departments.  Upon returning to the hotel room, we found the room turned down for bedtime, with chocolates on the bed and bottles of water on ice for us.  A very nice and classy touch.  With all the hubbub of the day and yet another early and busy day tomorrow, we passed out quick, myself still trying to overcome the sea legs from the cruise to the UK just days before.

Monday morning we woke up at 6:00 AM, readied ourselves for the day ahead and went down to the Palm Court for breakfast.  This was more to my parents and Susie's liking, as they prefer buffets, while I like portioned servings.  But, I have to hand it to the Palm, the buffet they had was exceptional, even for my tastes.  But the room the Palm Court occupies is sheer elegance.  Pillars all the way up to the high ceiling (the original Palm Court was an open air space, covered over in the massive restoration in 1991), and a large, plush, high-backed couch makes for a hell of a comfortable centerpiece and photo op.  After breakfast, I stopped at the front desk and concierge to exchange some US Dollars for the Queens Currency, and tickets to the Hop-on Hop-off Big Bus for our tour around the London sights.

Upon our return, the parents rested while Susie and I got ready for the new Holiday Tea service in the Palm Court, created by in-house celebrity chef Cherish Finden in conjunction with luxury house Asprey.  Today was the first day of the new holiday tea service, and I was lucky enough to be given a menu commemorating the service.  There are three seating times for Tea, at 1:00PM, 3:15PM (our time), and 5:30PM.  There is a certain amount of Tea Time Etiquette that must be adhered to, otherwise you would be labeled an uncouth slob.  By the way, the tradition of Afternoon Tea first began at the Langham, over 150 years ago, and is still a staple of British culture today.

The Festive Asprey Afternoon Tea menu includes a seriously delicious Eggnog, Duck Egg and Oscietra Caviar, 3 different types of finger sandwiches, consisting of Balvenie Whiskey smoked salmon & fennel brioche, Stilton, red onion, and relish on Walnut Bread ( I really liked this one), the Classic Cucumber, cream cheese and chives, and a smoked turkey and marjoram stuffing on cranberry bread that was absolutely divine.  Next came the iconic warm scones with Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry preserves, of which me and Susie could not get enough of.  The dessert round was a seriously festive (and seriously purple, as befits Asprey's house colors) plate of a mini gingerbread house, snowflake macaroon, a pistachio and cranberry slice, Asprey bauble, a tiny glass of rosehip and hibiscus topped with a white chocolate reindeer.  You also had 30 different tea blends to choose from, along with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne.  A seriously fantastic setup, and something that was on my London bucket to-do list.  At 62 GBP, it was well worth it, and I recommend it for everyone who visits during the holiday season.

After Tea I was in our room with Susie checking emails and beginning my writing process for this trip.  when the doorbell rang.  It was the hotel's resident Langham Service Stylist, Jessica, ready to show me around the property.

We started off at the Roux, and its massive wine collection and tucked away private dining room.  From there it was a quick view of the Palm Court, where I had spent considerable time today, and was just finishing up its third seating and gearing up for dinner.  From there it was up to the ballrooms, and I was shocked at how large the spaces were, considering I didn't think the building was THAT big.  Another case of appearances being deceiving!  From there it was down to the lower level meeting rooms and business center, one of the largest I've seen in a while.

Next up was the famed Chuan Spa, winner of many accolades, and is one of the highest rated spas in the West End.  The spa itself is in the building adjoining the hotel, connected by corridor, and includes a private couples spa suite, pre and post treatment relaxation area, full size male and female changing areas, herbal steam rooms, and a full size salt sauna.  From there I was taken to the large and state of the art fitness center, the 16-meter pool, built into what used to be a vault from the bank that used to occupy the building.  Since the hotel was completely full that night we couldn't see any of the other rooms, but hey, I'm not above making another trip.  Especially if I can take a peek at the Sterling, Infinity, or Wedgwood Suites...

As a Travel Agent, I tend to book the Langham, London as much as I can for my clients (I average about 4-5 bookings a month for the property) .  The average rates are decent for the upper level of luxury hotel the Langham is, considering she's the original "Grand" Hotel of Europe.  Now that I've seen her in person and stayed there, it'll be far more easier for me to sell.  Being located in the West End at the top of Regent Street doesn't hurt either, and is a great place for shoppers to stay.  All in All, aside from being down by the Thames, you cant beat the location, the style, or the bespoke care you'll receive at the Grandest Hotel of them all, the Langham, London.

 * Photos courtesy the Langham, London, or the author.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Long Live the Queen! An Unforgettable Voyage on the Queen Mary 2

I have been waiting to try Cunard's Queen Mary 2 for more than 6 years now, ever since I was a wet behind the ears, newly minted travel agent.  I had heard the stories, knew the history, and started booking Cunard from the get go.  Well, this year, I finally got the chance, as I had passed Cunard's Commodore Training program and earned my Graduation Cruise.  Now, you have a choice of the 3 Queens of the fleet, but I wanted the Flagship, the Queen Mary 2, on the route the Queens made famous for centuries...the Transatlantic crossing between New York and Southampton, UK.

It all started during the Orthodox Easter week of 2016.  A bet was made with several coworkers that I could finish of the entire Cunard Commodore training in 3 days.  Not one to back down from a challenge, I accepted, and off I went, cramming my brain with everything Cunard had to offer and knocking down one level after another until late Sunday afternoon I had achieved my Commodore Status with a 98% passing grade.  Score!  I won my bet, and made plans to take the entire family with me across the pond later this November, for their 38th anniversary.  Pre- and Post- Cruise stays and airfare taken care of, my parents cabin upgraded to a Club Balcony Stateroom, and mine and my daughter's cabin paid for, and we were set.

Waking up in New York on November 12 (after an amazing eventful night on the town) we were filled with excitement and anticipation as our ride took us from the Waldorf Astoria in Midtown down across the Brooklyn Bridge and around to the cruise terminal.  Even before we got out of the ride the Cunard porters had already unloaded all our luggage and had them ready for check-in.

At the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, Cunard check-in is a snap, especially if you have a group that need wheelchair assistance, and/or are one of the higher Status World Club Members such as Platinum or Diamond Tier, you can take advantage of the expedited check-in and World Club Elite Lounge before boarding.  Because both of my parents were in wheelchairs and I am a Platinum Tier World Club member (Thank you Cunard Agent Training!), we were sent over to the World Club Elite Lounge, then on up to the Queen Mary 2.

Once on deck, you get a purely British welcome aboard and there are quite a few porters there to help you find your stateroom, and as we were taking Mom and Dad up to their stateroom first, we got a good look around at the Foyer and all the high end shops, and had our Embarkation photo taken (available for purchase from the photo shop during the cruise) while our luggage was delivered to either stateroom.  From the rotunda of shops you are taken to Stairwell B, the 2nd main elevator bank on the ship, and on up to Deck 12, where we were sent down the hallway to Stairwell A, the only elevator bank with access to the Club Balcony staterooms on Deck 13.

The Club Balcony staterooms on Deck 13 are nicely laid out and spacious, as far as cruise ship staterooms go.  Just a bit larger in square footage than the regular Balcony and Sheltered Balcony staterooms, it comes with an updated bathroom, glass-fronted balcony, and a slightly larger and more plush sitting area.  Deck 13 is the highest stateroom level on the ship, and you would think being that high up and that far forward from the ships center of gravity, you'd be rocking back and forth the whole time.  Not so much on the Queen Mary 2. She was designed as a higher speed ocean liner versus the regular cruise ships elsewhere, so no matter where you are on her, you're going to be rock steady, unless you're in a storm, of course, but that goes without saying.

Leaving the folks to relax, unwind and unpack, me and the Teenager headed on down to Deck 6 to our stateroom.  Our room was in the aft-middle of the ship, and a heck of a long hike from Stairwell A (our stateroom was two doors down from the entry to stairwell C, the third main elevator bank onboard).  Long trek aside, our stateroom was another Cunard-Only design, the Sheltered Balcony.  What's interesting about these cabins is that they are balconies that have been "punched out" of the ship's hull below the deck line, allowing for a huge increase in total balconies available.  The balcony is the same size as the normal balconies above, but it is not as exposed to the elements with the hull surrounding it, giving a massive open air "window" to the sea.

With our luggage unpacked and stowed, we met up with the folks in the Kings Court buffet, up one level on Deck 7.  In the hustle and bustle of checking out of the Waldorf Astoria, to checking in and getting onboard, somehow we forgot to eat a single thing, and we knew we couldn't hold out until our reservation at the Smokehouse.  So, snack time it was, and having killed the hunger pangs sufficiently, the Teen and I went exploring.

We managed to cover Decks 2 (Cunard Connexions Internet and communication center, the Royal Court Theatre, Casino, Purser's Office, the Photo Gallery, Golden Lion Pub, and the lower level of the Britannia Restaurant), Deck 3 (Illuminations Planetarium, the upper level of the Royal Court Theatre, the galleria of shops, upper portion of the Grand Lobby, the Duty Free shop, Veuve Cliquot Champagne Bar, the Chart Room, Sir Samuel's Coffee Bar,  the Upper Level of the Britannia Restaurant, the Queen's Room, the Art Gallery, and the G32 night club), and Deck 8 (the well-stocked Library and Bookshop,  the Beauty Salon, the Verandah Restaurant, and the outdoor Terrace Pool).  Having explored a bit, we hustled back to the stateroom and changed for the folks' Anniversary Dinner.

On any given Trans-Atlantic crossing there are 3 formal nights, where ladies are in elegant gowns or fine dresses and the Gents in tuxes or dark suits with ties frolic the night away.  The first night out of port is an informal night, as it should be, as passengers are unwinding from the hustle and bustle of embarkation.  For someone like me, I relish and look forward to formal nights. Dressing up to the nines and looking like an overfed and underpowered James Bond is my forte!  During formal nights there are balls and dances to go to, and cocktail receptions to sip champagne at, and even a Captain's night for the upper Tier World Club members and Club and Suite level passengers to hobnob with the Senior Staff and get their photo taken with Captain Wells.

On the typical Trans-Atlantic sojourn, you have a wealth of activities to do and places to see to while the time away.  Our favorite places were the board game tables on Deck 3 on either side of the Royal Court Theatre, the Library, both stateroom balconies (believe it or not, it was not that cold for being early November), and the Golden Lion Pub.  The Carinthia Lounge is also a great place to relax, and have a sip of wine and some very fine canapes.  There's also the plethora of shopping choices and the casino as well.

Disembarking in Southampton was quick and painless, especially since we had early disembarkation due to the Platinum Tier status and wheelchair assistance.  The gangway in Southampton was smaller than the one in New York, and less steep, which made the descent to dry land easier.  Since we had already cleared UK Customs onboard during the voyage across the pond, all we had to do was pick up our luggage and find our driver for the 2 hour journey to London.  Luckily, he was already there waiting for us, and within 10 minutes of disembarking, we were cruising up the M3 to the 2nd greatest city on Earth.

The week onboard the Queen Mary 2 was one of the most sensational , relaxing, and uplifting travel experiences I've had yet, and even though I'm not much of a Cruise fanatic, I would gladly board the Queen again, hopefully I'll get my chance to travel on all 3 of the Cunard Queens.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Unforgettably Manhattan: An Evening at the Waldorf Astoria

There are some hotels that have built up a reputation over the years for being luxurious, yet pretentious.  Over the decades, they end up resting on their laurels and let the bookings come in based on those original accolades, and they never try to keep themselves a step ahead of the pack.  You try to get away with that in the dog-eat-dog environment of New York City, Manhattan in particular, you're dead meat.  The Waldorf Astoria, that historic bastion of unrivaled luxury and service known the world over, has not let itself fall behind, even with an island full of newcomers.

The present building, at 301 Park Avenue, has become an iconic fixture of the Park Avenue scene, and is internationally known for its lavish dinner parties and galas, often being the center of the political and entertainment universes and their various fundraising schemes.  The hotel was opened in 1931, and was the world's tallest hotel until 1963.  The Hilton Hotels bought the property in 1972, having managed it since 1949.

My stay at the Waldorf Astoria blew my mind.  I have stayed over in New York City many times, but never at the Waldorf.  I was excited, at the very least, and I had my family in tow with me, so this was going to be an adventure of sorts.  Originally we were supposed to stay at another luxury hotel down on 5th Avenue, but the rates for the night we were in town were far too extortionate, so I found a better room for a far better rate at the Waldorf, so I decided, what the hell, let's go for it.  I sell it on a weekly basis as a Travel Agent, so I might as well try it out.

We arrived into New York/JFK International Airport around 4PM, and our driver met us in the baggage claim and we were on our way up the Van Wyck Expressway no more than 25 minutes after landing.  The driver however, took his time and since he was following a GPS, took a seriously long way into the city (we crossed the East River at the RFK Bridge), aggravating us further, and forcing us to change our dinner reservations at Uncle Jack's Steakhouse for a later time (almost two hours later)! No tip for him.

Upon arrival at the hotel the bellman, not the driver helped us out of the car and rapidly got our luggage taken care of so we can check in unburdened.  The ride up to the lobby was not bad, but once we got out of the elevator, we felt slightly under dressed as there were a LOT of people dressed to the nines.  Expensive furs, diamonds, and tuxes with tails were on full display and champagne was flowing freely.  I sat my brood down while I checked us in.  Helen, the front desk agent, told me not to sweat, there was a massive fundraiser going on that night, and the upper class of Manhattan were strictly there for show.  She handed me the keys to the room and directed me to the proper elevator bank up to our floor.

Our luggage was waiting in the foyer of the room when we got up there, and we settled in to unwind for a second and get ready for dinner.  The luggage was in the foyer, Mom checked out the bathroom (which was stocked with awesome Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries) and the bedroom, with its two king beds, while Susie, Dad and I plopped down in living room area, waiting for Mom to finish up.  While she was getting ready, the housekeeper came up and asked if our room was to our satisfaction and when would we be ready for our turn down service?  We told her we are on our way out in about 15 minutes and turn down would be greatly appreciated, as well as a 2nd scrub down of the bathroom, not to mention fixing up the sofa bed for Susie (which was her favorite part).  Off we were for dinner, with a cab waiting for us.

Returning back to the hotel after that amazing dinner we found the room had been turned down and Susie's bed was ready, and the bathroom had also been scrubbed again.  Our room was the Junior Suite, with 2 King Beds and a separate living area, with a total square footage of somewhere between 450 and 600 Square Feet (ours was right in the middle around 525 sq. feet).  The bathrooms were marble and granite and the Waldorf Serenity beds was one of the most comfortable beds I have slept on in a long, long time.  I didn't even need my CPAP machine that night it was so comfortable and good for me.  We all slept soundly and woke up refreshed and ready for our trek to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.

The Opinion of this Travel Agent:  If you have only one night in the New York area, and would like to live in opulence for a decent rate without breaking the bank, give the iconic Waldorf Astoria a try.  You'll never regret it, I guarantee it.  But you better hurry, the hotel closes in 2017 for three years for renovations to the structure.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An Open Smile on a Friendly Shore: Diary Entries from the Ruby Princess

September 19, 2016

Started the morning out tying up all loose ends around the house, then I was on my way.  Picked up Bob from the office at 8:00AM, dropped my oldest off at school, and we were on our way.

Traffic was stacked up on the freeway in Davis County, as usual, but a crash further slowed things down, but once past the wreck, the freeway cleared and the driving masses were getting underway again.

We got to the airport at 9 o'clock on the dot, printed our boarding passes and headed upstairs to TSA screening.  Having TSA precheck was supposed to make us go through a lot faster and easier, and I did, but Bob had to be escorted back out and forced to dump the contents of his water bottle and throw away his hair spray.  He finally made it through no sweat on the 2nd try.

Luckily, we made it early enough that we only hung around the boarding area for a little over an hour before boarding was called.  Thanks to my bum knee, the sweet ex-Western gate agent let us preboard and we were one of the very first onboard, so, off we go, and folded ourselves into the not so tall CRJ-900 cabin.  Settling in and watching the rest of the 73 passengers duck their way on, we eventually took a 5 minute delay due to slow boarding and paperwork, but once off the gate we hurried on out to runway 16R and off into the wild blue yonder.

The flight was uneventful, although we did fly over some seriously gorgeous scenery on a route that was first pioneered by Western Airlines in 1975.  The CRJ-900 is definitely a FAR cry from the 727's and 737's that used to fly the route (all the way up to 2004), but for the 2 hour flight it is, the RJ works.

Once on the ground, we hauled ourselves down the long and lonely corridor to Canadian Customs and Immigration.  Swipe the passport at the kiosk, take the declaration printout to the counter, stamp the passport (which we didn't get!!), and off to baggage claim and find our bags among the myriads of foreigners entering Vancouver (we came in around the same time as one of the Korean Air, Norwegian, Icleandair and Trans-Pacific Air Canada flights came in, so customs was packed).  Luckily, upon exiting the sterile area, our chauffeur was there and we were on the road in less than two minutes, and on our way to the Canada World Cruiseport.  Good thing I had the foresight to book a private driver, if he hadn't, with our delays, we would've missed the boat.

Offloading our bags and schlepping them through the Cruise Terminal, then through the first round of security and up into a massive, cavernous room that separated the cruising masses into smaller, more manageable boarding groups, Bob and I had a slight wait (no more than 20 minutes), then through what seemed like endless miles of cordoned off pathways, we made it to the check in line, and with our preferred check in status (one of the many benefits AAA members get when they book their cruise through us), we were on the Ruby Princess in 5 minutes, and up in our stateroom in less than 10, with my bags waiting.

Onboard the Ruby Princess

The Ruby Princess is one of 3 Grand-Class ships operated by Princess.  Built between 2007 and 2008, the Ruby was christened by Ryan and Trista Sutter, of The Bachelorette, and her maiden voyage took place on November 8, 2008.  She has room for 3,080 passengers and 1,200 crew.  For the remainder of 2016 she can be found in the waters between Alaska and the Mexican Riviera, before entering drydock for a refit on December 10.

Our cabin was A735, on Deck 12, the Aloha Deck.  It's a typical Balcony Stateroom, around 231 square feet, and nicely laid out for its size.  The balcony adds an additional 45 square feet, and seats 2, somewhat comfortably.  Upon entering the stateroom, we found welcome notes from Princess and AAA, thanking us for joining the Familiarization (FAM) trip, along with an invitation to the Boticelli Dining Room for the first Group Dinner, along with an invite before hand for drinks and mingling in the Adagio Lounge, where we met the majority of our FAM trip cohorts from AAA and from the Signature Travel Network, my previous consortia.

The dinner was amazing, and Princess' hostess for the FAM had the foresight to seat me and Bob at a table for 4 with one of the agents from the Vancouver, WA office and one of Signature's highest netting Luxury Agents, whom I met last year at the Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas.  As I said, the meal was superb, but it wiped us out, so we just headed back to the cabin and passed out.

September 20, 2016

Bob woke up before I did, but we managed to get a little bit of breakfast on the Lido Deck buffet well before our first onboard seminar at 8:30.

Today's presentation was on Princess Cruises and their more focused and increased sailings to Alaska for the 2017 and 2018 sailings.  They went over and explained the 4 ships that will be devoted to Alaska for the Spring (including the Ruby Princess), as well as an overview of the rail and land excursions available only to Princess passengers.  During the last 15 minutes or so, the crowd was whittled down to just the AAA agents and a brief overview of the additional benefits of booking our members through a AAA Vacations or Sojourns Cruise went on.  Good stuff, and plenty of info for me to digest and explain to our members when they call in for their next cruise.

We were on our own after the seminar and I spent Day 2 at Sea getting a tour of several different category staterooms, and a very cool and informative sit down with the Captain's Circle Hostess, going over the different levels of the Captain's Circle (think along the lines of Elite Status with the legacy airlines).

Stopped by the stateroom to relax for a bit and found invitations to dinner for us in the alternative dining restaurant, Share by Curtis Stone, along with one for dinner the following night at the Crown Grill Steakhouse down on the Promenade.

Share by Curtis Stone  is an intimate little corner of Deck 16, the Sun Deck.  It recently launched during the Ruby Princess' last drydock and has been wowing cruisers on each sailing, oh, and it's only available on the Ruby and Emerald Princesses, for now.

The Cover Charge is $39 per person, but is well worth every last, red penny, and it just happens to be open only for dinner.  The whole point to Share, according to Curtis Stone is to "amplify that feeling of just being together and sharing everything with one another and asking "what are you going to choose? 'Cause if you choose that, then I'll pick this and try yours as well."  In this overfed Travel Agents opinion, they have this down to an art form.

There are 5 reasons why you should pick Share at least on one night during your cruise, that'll be worth the splurge:

1 - You won't find food like this ANYWHERE else on the ship
      Before Share, the Ruby Princess only had the buffet and the Steakhouse, with the normal, average run of the mill offerings.  Share has changed the typical cruisers mindset.

2 - It's perfect for large groups...or couples
      The space is somewhat large, very open and airy, with long farmhouse style tables and well appointed booths tucked away in dimly lit corners, adding a slightly romantic touch to the evening.

3 - The ambiance is upscale...but not stuffy
      Share's upscale rustic decor and family style dining allow you to dress your best and still feel relaxed.  Imagined lighting, and eclectic wall art blend with wanderlust-inspired trinkets, a nod to Curtis Stone's passion for travel (sounds like a page out of my own book!).  You'll feel more like your in someones home, talking, laughing and passing plates across the table.

4 - Service is second to none
      One HUGE takeaway for me was the service.  If you are lucky enough to get Magdalena from Poland as your server, you're gunna have a devil of a time leaving the table.  She is one of the greatest human assets Princess Cruises has, and boy, were we taken care of and entertained at dinner.  She knew the menu by heart, went over it and explained several things to us, the ingredients, and also what wine best paired with each plate.

5 - You'll actually have room for dessert

After dinner I went down to the Explorers Lounge on Deck 7 to catch the comedian doing his stand up routine while other agents either hit the casino, the promenade, or the Magic to Do show, created by Broadway director Stephen Schwartz.  Later on it was over to Club Fusion for some much needed karaoke, then off to bed, for we had yet another seminar at sea in the morning.

September 21, 2016

Yet another early start, I do have to say though, those Princess Luxury Beds (even the Twin Size), they are so comfortable and cozy, the instant I laid down I was out quick, and apparently it even helped with my sleep apnea.  There are very few beds where I have slept in and not needed my CPAP machine.

This morning's seminar was on Princess' Sister Line, Cunard.  The subject was the remade and revamped Queen Mary 2, fresh out of drydock in Germany.  Funny thing is, I'll be on the Queen Mary 2 in just a few weeks, on the iconic TransAtlantic crossing, that Cunard made famous during the 19th and 20th Centuries.  After the seminar we were led on a tour of the theatre, as well as the backstage and behind the scenes areas, places regular passengers never see, where several dancers from the show told us and even showed us how they put on a show on the open seas (could you imagine trying to do a flying pirouette with the boat bobbing up and down?).

The rest of the afternoon I spent perusing the ship and outdoor areas.  Tons of photos were taken and areas explored.  Headed back to the cabin to get started on the journal for this voyage, as well as try out the Room Service.  Exceptionally service and a tasty dish was laid out and this writer went right to work...and falling asleep on the balcony in the middle of writing.

After my nap on the balcony, I took a shower and got ready for dinner in the Crown Grill, the Ruby Princess' steak and seafood restaurant.  Located on the Deck 7 Promenade, the Crown Grill is a very dark and subdued place where a carnivore can feast in peace with some of the best cuts and catches around, at an additional cost of course.  After dinner, Bob and I were amped up, so we hit up Club Fusion for a final round of karaoke before disembarkation in the morning.

September 22, 2016

Woke up to the sound of a busy port, and the balcony door wide open.  One of the better ways to wake up, if you ask me.  Bob was out on the balcony enjoying the view and his last few minutes onboard.  A knock on the door by our steward reminding us we had to be off the Ruby Princess by our appointed time, and I was up and getting ready.  45 minutes later we made our way down to the Promenade Deck and in line to disembark.

The San Pedro, California Cruise Pier shares the harbor with the massive shipping vessels and and smaller, leisurely Catalina Island ferries.  As luck would have it, we were the only cruise ship in port at the time, so customs was a snap and we found ourselves out on the taxi stand within an hour, waiting for a shuttle ride to LAX, which only took 20 minutes, in moderate traffic.

Before we knew it, we were schlepping our bags through the Delta Airlines side of Terminal 6 (the former Continental Airlines terminal), waiting for our flight back to Salt Lake City, with the company of a fellow AAA agent from the cruise, waiting for her flight back to Sacramento.

Thanks again to my bum knee, we pre-boarded before anyone else.  Our Airbus A320 was the first one delivered to Northwest Airlines back in 1991, but a recent facelift and cabin refresh made this plane surprisingly comfortable and cozy.  Mood lighting and and very attentive crew made the flight a good one, until we hit the weather heading back behind the Zion Curtain into Utah.  We got tossed around a little bit, which Bob and I thought was fun, and landed in a downpour of rain that didn't let up.  I ended up dropping Bob off at his car back at the office and off I went home, finding out tornadoes touched down in our neck of the woods.

Princess Cruises has a good thing going, and the Ruby Princess and her kind are a step above a lot of ships nowadays, and for mass markets, a great fit.  I'd love to get back onboard the Ruby Princess again someday.  The Globetrotting Adventures of Frank and Dylan continue...

Monday, August 1, 2016

Downtown Family Fun: The Chelsea Toronto

If you know my travel habits at all, you know I'm addicted to staying at Langham properties.  I rant and rave endlessly about them, much to the annoyance of coworkers and family alike.  Every stay I've had was always above and beyond exceptional.  From check-in to check-out there is never ANYTHING amiss.

That being said, let's go on.

So I had a trip to Toronto, Canada planned and was pleased to find out out there's a Langham property there, the Chelsea.  This just happens to be Toronto's largest hotel and it's most family-friendly.  So I had my stay booked.  I chose a 1-Bedroom Suite as the rate was very, very attractive.  All set, and I was stoked as I would achieve Gateway status in Langham's 1865 loyalty program. With 3 stays at a Langham within a 12 month period, you hit Gateway status, 5 stays you hit Voyager status, and if you're one of the lucky few in the top 1%, you get a special invite to the Destiny level.  You can check out the membership levels at:

So I finally get to Toronto, after a red-eye flight on Air Canada from Los Angeles, and my pick up told me the hotel would gladly take me as an early check in if a room was available.  Awesome, I was exhausted anyways and smelled like I needed a shower pronto. At least it didn't take too long getting downtown, even in early morning traffic.

I arrived at the hotel, schlepped my bags inside...and saw a HUGE line in the lobby.  This line would've taken a good 40 minutes to get through, and I didn't want to be the reason the lobby was cleared due to malevolent odors.  Looking around, I found the 1865 desk completely empty, so I headed over and the lovely agent there checked me in with a snap, he must have seen how haggard and horrid I looked.  Check-in wasn't bad at all, just the mandatory swiping of the credit card and issuance of keys.  He guided me to the Blue elevators and up to the 26th floor I went after a while, with a huge crowd growing in the waiting area.  Apparently these elevators take a while and more than one would be required to handle this crowd.

Finally at my room on the highest floor in the hotel, I opened up and came to a very clean, organized and well laid out living room and kitchen.  Not bad at all!  The bedroom was a pure white, well appointed space with a great big Queen bed that perfectly sleeps two.  The living room was spacious and laid out with plenty of seating options including sofa that pulls out into a Queen bed (perfect for any kids).

One of the coolest (no pun intended) things about this hotel is the kid zone and family pool area.  As far as I know, no other Langham property has something like this.  The kid zone has something for all ages, from the Club 33 arcade and game room for teens to the artistically educational Kid Centre for the younger crowd, complete with two furry mascots, Marbles and Thumper, the Chelsea's resident bunnies.  The big thing here though is Toronto's only corkscrew water slide INSIDE a hotel, which can be seen from the Walton St. entrance to the hotel.

Another plus to the Chelsea is that it is centrally located in downtown Toronto, within footsteps of most everything, including the landmark CN Tower, the Eaton Center, and Queen Street and its plethora of retail shops and eateries (don't forget to have brunch in the Senator Restaurant, with their killer French Toast).

Some of the downers of the hotel, though, shouldn't have been in the first place.  The property is in bad need of renovation.  Walking around most of the floors I saw threadbare carpeting, electrical panels wide open, incredibly dark hallways with little lighting, the elevators that take forever and stop at every floor, regardless if there is anyone waiting or not, and certain staff members that could care less if there were guests to assist.

These problems aside, I have no problem booking guests here, nor staying myself again.  You just have to remember this property is to the Langham as what the Hometown Suites is to Marriott.  A great place for the entire family, decent sized rooms, awesome location, and one of the best kids' areas I've seen at ANY hotel anywhere, complete with two happy rabbits bouncing around.

 *photos courtesy of the Chelsea Toronto

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Aloha a mahalo i keia kipa ' ana mai (Aloha, and welcome aboard)

Hawaiian Airlines and its Intra-Island flights are nothing new.  In fact, you might be surprised as to why I'm writing about such a short segment, but, I have to say, since Hawaiian came out of bankruptcy and refurbished and streamlined the interiors of the Boeing 717 fleet, it was one of the most pleasant island hopping flights I've had in a long time.

I had arrived into Honolulu on Delta's nonstop from Salt Lake City around 2:30PM local time and had a while to wait for my connection to Maui.  Stepping off the artificially air conditioned Boeing 767-300 into the Pacific heat and humidity (in a suit no less!), was a shock to my system.  Maybe I'm getting to old to be doing flights like these anymore, I don't know.  Luckily, I didn't have a long walk from Gate 22 to the top of the concourse.

The airport itself is laid out in a weird fashion, with enclosed, air conditioned gate areas attached together by open air breezeways.  Going back and forth between the Mainland US departure gates and the Inter-Island gates is a simple, if not long trek, but if you need to head back to the mainland gates you do have to have your bags scanned for any agricultural contraband that shouldn't be taken off the islands.

My flight to Kahului, Maui was leaving out of Gate 55.  I had about 5 hours to wait, so I parked my carcass and watched the ramp activity and wandered around some.  Walking the span of the Intra-Island concourse I then headed back out to the open air breezeway and ducked into the older Ewa Concourse where Hawaiian's longer Airbus A330 and Boeing 767 operated flights depart from.

7:30 finally rolled by and I was welcomed aboard Hawaiian's flight 556, that night being operated by N478HA, delivered in May 2001.  For a 15 year old airplane, the new interior Hawaiian installed looked fabulous and clean, and definitely delivered an island vibe.  The 717 is the final version of the venerable Douglas DC-9 twin jet, and has a very comfortable 2x3 seating arrangement inside. I was fortunate enough to snag seat 12A, on the 2-seat side, and settled in for the quick hop.

This is where I was blown away.

On this short hop, the flight attendants got busy with their service, and in less than 20 minutes, and with a smile, they managed to make every last passenger on board feel like they were in their own living room.  You try a 30 minute hop anywhere in the lower 48, and you'll be lucky to get coffee spilled on you with a scowl.  On Hawaiian, they managed to serve us macadamias and pineapple along with the ever present and refreshing Passion-Orange Nectar.

Landing in Maui you could feel the 717's BMW designed engines and their reverse thrust kick in and slow us down just about halfway down the runway.  Getting off the plane was simple and quick since we had a light load and I was hauling down the concourse to meet my Delta flight back to LAX, leaving in 20 minutes!

Before this trip, Hawaii was never really on my list of destinations, but I honestly wouldn't mind going back, even if just to hop on another Island Hopper, then back to the mainland.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Most Surprising Desert Oasis

"Yes, there really is a city, it's called Wendover, and it's in did you miss it?"  - Lewis Black

This has to be one of the most surprising hotel stays I've ever had.  Normally, when I do go to Wendover, it's usually on a day off when I have nothing else to do and am jonesing to get out of the State of Utah without driving to Idaho or make the trek down to Las Vegas, nor do I have a plane ticket to anywhere.

The trek through the high desert of Northern Utah brought me to the Montego Bay Resort just before check-in, but they had rooms ready to go.  Check-in was a breeze, as it's not that complicated, especially since I was on using a Player's Club comp (If you have a chance and come out semi frequently, sign up for it, its easy to rack up the points).

My room was on the 5th floor, and upon entrance I was blown away by its size, the spaciousness, the layout, and how open it is.  Once you enter, the spacious and large bathroom is on one side, and does not disappoint.  In fact, it could beat anything offered up by Marriott or Starwood, or even MGM Grand International.  I'm a stickler for big spacious bathrooms (even though I love world travel, the hotel bathrooms back home in Greece are ridiculously small), and love the space for my 6'1" frame.

Coming in at 375 square feet or so, these rooms with the double King Beds are amazing (have I said that enough yet?).  Room for luggage stowing without tripping over it constantly, the King beds are super plush and comfortable, and I suffer from sleep apnea, these are one of the few hotel beds I have ever slept comfortably and all night without my apnea waking me up.

About the only negative I have for the Montego Bay is lack of room service, but hey, who's there to sleep at night and hang out in their room writing a travel blog?

Thanks for reading!