A Weekend in Hong Kong – Ten Highlights

Since my first time to Hong Kong during grad school back in 2009, I’ve referred to Hong Kong as my favorite city in the World.  After a third trip back, I still think it’s my favorite city anywhere.  There’s just so much that this metropolis has to offer.   From the markets to the vistas to the beaches to the food to the architecture, Hong Kong really has it all, and is a true urban metropolis.
Every time I go back to Hong Kong, I continue to be mesmerized by its iconic skyline that towers over Victoria Harbor.  I’m still  enthralled with the absurd variety and quality of foods.  Hong Kong is basically Manhattan — with a better skyline.  But on a beautiful harbor.  With mountainous terrain.  And great beaches on the other side of the mountains… basically, I think this city has it all.

Continue Reading →

24 Hours in Anchorage

I’m posting this after completing a short, weekend trip to Anchorage, Alaska as part of a mileage run to hit the American Airlines Executive Platinum Status Challenge. Anchorage is a great place to spend a day, and obviously a fantastic hopping off point to explore more of Alaska, including Denali, the Kenai Peninsula, or even an Alaskan cruise. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend you actually spend some time in Alaska – certainly more than 24 hours. I’ve been fortunate enough to take two cruises to Alaska, so I’ve been able to experience the majestic scenery of the Last Frontier. I also spent a couple days in Anchorage last summer for a quick, weekend trip.

With that said, there’s no shortage of things to do if you have a short time in Anchorage – whether it’s a free day after a cruise, a hopping off point before or after a fishing trip, or if you find it amusing to fly almost 10,000 miles in a weekend, like me. Continue Reading →

Review: Spirit of Freedom Live-Aboard Dive Trip

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Spirit of Freedom

Spirit of Freedom

Spirit of Freedom

We were greeted in Lizard Island by Captain Tony and the Spirit of Freedom crew.  After a short walk to the northern beach, we boarded a dinghy in crystal clear water and motored off to the mothership!  After a thorough introduction and safety presentation, we were shown our rooms.  Since it was all that was available at the time we booked, my dad and I shared a quad room with four bunks and a bathroom.  It was exactly what we expected, and all we needed during the trip.

The Boat

The boat itself is basically a three-story yacht configured to make it a diving vessel.  As such, there’s 1/3 of a deck fully dedicated to SCUBA diving operations — equipment setup, tank filling, storage, etc.  Inside from the dive deck is kitchen and dining room where we enjoyed the wonderful meals aboard Spirit of Freedom.   Further forward on the same deck is the main lounge on the boat, which featured a huge sofa, a bar, and television – it was really a great place to relax between dives.  Six of the cabins were located a deck lower, and a few were on the top deck, just forward of the good-sized sun-deck and aft of the bridge.

The Diving

Spirit of Freedom certainly delivered on the promise of world-class diving.  Over the four days, we enjoyed no less than fifteen dives!  Yes, 15!

On the day of arrival, we enjoyed two afternoon dives on Ribbon Reef number 9 on the Great Barrier Reef.  These dives featured incredible corals and marine life, including a school of barracuda and a large hammerhead shark!

Disclaimer:  The below diving pictures from this trip were compiled by the guests and crew of this dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom from 02 January to 06 January, 2014 — I unfortunately did not take these pictures
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School of Barracuda at Ribbon Reef #9

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Hammerhead on the GBR

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Incredibly clear water makes divers 50m away visible

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The Spirit of Freedom from below

Overnight, we steamed over a hundred miles out into the Coral Sea to Osprey Reef – an atoll basically in the middle of nowhere — certainly not a commonly dived part of the world.  The water here was so clear, it was breathtaking.  Visibility was upwards of 200 feet, and was some of the clearest water I’ve experienced anywhere — including the notoriously crystal clear freshwater of the Florida Springs.

We dived five times on the second day of the trip.  The first two dives were on the North Horn.  The second dive was a shark feeding dive, where a box of bait was essentially lowered on to the reef in the middle of about 30-40 sharks.

A feeding frenzy ensued.  And it was awesome.

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

That afternoon, we took in two more dives on Osprey Reef, including “Secret Caves” and “Admiralty” – both dives were complete with a network of tunnels and caves, which were some of my favorite dives of the trip.  After dinner, we enjoyed a night dive of Admiralty, and it was purely spectacular.

The next day, we steamed South to Shark Reef, where we saw an abundance of Silvertip Sharks an unbelievably clear water.  Later in the day, we dove Vema Reef and then returned to the southern tip of Osprey Reef for the final dive of the day at “Rapid Horn” which was probably the best dive of the entire trip due to the impressive wall, abundant sea life, and sheer number of large sharks.  The final day was spent at Bouganville Reef for a fourth day of spectacular diving.  That final day, diving ended a bit early so we could cruise back to Cairns, where we disembarked on the morning of January 6th.

Food

The food was outstanding.  It was far better than I expected, and was frankly better than almost any cruise I’ve ever been on.  The presentation and taste of every meal was top-notch.  Every day, we were woken up at 6:30am for a light breakfast before our first dive.  This was usually a continental affair featuring cereals, muffins, yogurts,  juices and coffee.  We then proceeded to do our first dive of the day.  Upon finishing the first dive, we returned to the dive boat with the aroma of a freshly cooked breakfast greeting us as we walked inside.  This was a hot breakfast of pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs, and a variety of other goodies.  Lunch was usually quite elaborate, and featured a wide range of cuisines throughout the trip.  Dinner was alway a treat, as the staff served us course by course with some delicious meals ranging from beef tenderloin to chicken to a wonderful fish dish.  The final night of the trip was highlighted by an on-deck barbecue with chicken, steak, sausage, and kangaroo, along with delicious sides — it was just amazing having the meal on deck in the middle of the Coral Sea.  There was PLENTY to eat, and all the food was just first-rate.

The Crew

Simply fantastic.  They bent over backwards for us all week.  The trip director, Nic led an amazing lot of dives, and provided excellent dive briefings before every dive, and summaries of the day every evening.  Hostess Jill and the team really couldn’t do enough for us all week — everything we needed was taken care of.  The crew was really as good as it gets!

Spirit of Freedom Crew

Spirit of Freedom Crew

Overall

I really can’t say enough about our time on the Spirit of Freedom.  It was a SCUBA diver’s dream — plain and simple.

The diving was some of the best in the world.   The vessel was a world-class live aboard ship.  The crew couldn’t have been any better.  The food was borderline gourmet.  Everything exceeded our wildest expectations.  We really viewed this as THE highlight of our entire Australia experience.  I really couldn’t have thought up a better way to spend some great quality time with my dad than this.

Though the Spirit of Freedom is priced a bit higher than some of its competitors, I can say that you get what you pay for.  Pricing information can be found on the Spirit of Freedom website, here.  I highly recommend this trip to all divers — it’s certainly a bucket list-type trip!

How I Booked it…

No points or miles here!  I sent in a reservation request on the website and finalized the details via e-mail with the Spirit of Freedom staff…

Spirit of Freedom Website

The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 16

We awoke around 6:30am to start our drive across the Emerald Isle since we had an 11:30am flight from Connemara Airport, about 45 minutes west of Galway.  The prior day we rented a car, so that was sitting for us in the parking garage.  And oh, what a funny little car it was!  The thing just screamed “European car” and I looked absolutely ridiculous driving it with my 6’4″ frame.  We left The Morrison and proceeded through the outskirts of Dublin right around the beginning part of Friday morning rush hour.  We were headed out of the city, so traffic was light.  We then got on the M4 and then the M6 motorway (very similar to US Interstate Highways), and drove clear across the country in about two and a half hours!  The next thing we knew, we were on the outskirts of Galway.  After proceeding through about a half dozen traffic circles, we were on an ocean-side highway hugging the Galway Bay between Galway and Connemara.  We stopped for a scone and a coffee of a picturesque beach overlooking Galway Bay.

Several months earlier, I arranged for a scheduled flight to take us to the Aran Islands and back.  After tons of research, we decided that we wanted to see the Aran Islands.  We decided on Inishmore since it was the largest of the three islands, and seemed to have lots to see.  Since they’re relatively remote (about ten miles off the West coast of Ireland), the only two options to get to the islands were by ferry or by plane.  The ferry was said to take 90-12o minutes and cost €25-30, while the plane was said to be an eight minute flight for €49 round trip.  Given our time constraint (we needed to do it in one day), the decision to book the flight was an easy one.  We booked the flight directly on Aer Arann Islands’ website, and the process really couldn’t have been any easier.

We arrived at the airport about 45 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time of 11:30am.  We checked in and were situated in the small lobby of the Connemara Airport.  After a safety briefing on TV, the two of us and a third passenger were gathered for boarding for this eight-minute flight that would cover 12 miles — currently the fifth shortest scheduled flight in the world!

We flew a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander — an eight-seat aircraft (including the two pilots) from Connemara (NNR) to Inishmore (IOR) in the Aran Islands with one pilot and three passengers, including the two of us.  After a scenic approach to the island, we touched down and were immediately met by Aer Arann Island officials who had a mini bus waiting to take us to town.  Upon arriving into the main town in Inishmore, called Kilronan, we grabbed a pint of Guinness and lunch at the bar, appropriately named, “The Bar.”  We then walked across the street and rented bikes for €10 each.  The bike shop owner pointed us out the sights we should see on the map, and off we went!

It was about a 6km bike ride along a very hilly and scenic road to the entrance of the must-see prehistoric fort of Dun Aonghasa.  From the entrance, there was another 1km walk up the hill to the ridge of the cliff where the fort lies.

The views from here were magnificent, as the cliffs dropped off some 300 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.

We walked around Dun Aonghasa for about 45 minutes, snapping pictures left and right.  Interestingly, there was no railing along the edge of the cliff, and one could hang their legs off the ledge if they dared — definitely a harrowing feat.  I myself didn’t play that game… I’m way too scared of heights, and I even had weak knees when I walked within five feet of the ledge!

After touring the fort, we descended the hill, got back on our bikes, and made the scenic drive back to town where our minibus picked us up for our return flight back to Connemara.  Inishmore was a MUST see.  If you have time in Ireland, or if you’re in Galway, it’s definitely worth spending at least a day out in the Aran Islands.  I much prefer the flight over there since it saves a ton of time, and you don’t need to worry about the frequently rough seas that you may encounter on a ferry ride.

Upon arriving back in Connemara, we hopped into our mini-car and proceeded to the town of Galway.  We were booked for one night at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway.  We chose this hotel because it was comparably priced to other places, it was within walking distance to the main part of town, and it received some pretty good reviews online.  Parking cost €5 and check-in was a breeze.  Much to our surprise, breakfast seemed to be included in our room rate — win!  The room was basic — comfortable and somewhat modern, but nothing overly special or memorable.  The lobby of the hotel was quite pretty, but we really didn’t spend any time there.

After freshening up, we set out to explore Galway for the evening.  And what an awesome little town it is!  Most of our time was spent along Quay Street in the Spanish Arch area.  This street was lined with pubs and shops, and just had a genuine Irish feel to it.  Galway is right on the water, so that made the town seem especially scenic.  We went into a couple of pubs for pints:  The Quays and The Dail Bar.  We enjoyed both of them, and honestly could have just pub-hopped all night in this cute little town.  Alas, we were starving at this point, so we headed to Finnegans Corner Restaurant & Bar where my girlfriend enjoyed some Shepherd’s Pie, and I had fish and chips, yet again.  The food was really quite fantastic, and we left the place pretty full.  At that point, it was approaching 10pm, and we were exhausted, so we made our way back to the hotel for a decent night’s rest.

 

Cruise Review: Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


I previously blogged about each port we encountered on the Nieuw Amsterdam, so this post is meant to be about the cruise itself.  Previous posts on the itinerary, ports, and the Pinnacle Suite can be found in the menu links above.  This is a full-fledged cruise review of the various aspects of shipboard life.  As such, it is much longer than my typical blog post.  Enjoy…

Holland America Line
ms Nieuw Amsterdam
12-night Mediterranean Empires cruise
May 2, 2014 – May 14, 2014
Depart:  Venice, Italy (round-trip)
Cabin / Suite:  7031 (category PS)
Itinerary:  Venice, Italy; at sea; Katakolon (Olympia), Greece; Piraeus (Athens), Greece; Istanbul, Turkey (overnight); Mitilini, Lesbos, Greece; Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey; Santorini, Greece; Argostoli, Cephalonia, Greece; at sea; Venice, Italy (overnight)

Nieuw Amsterdam in Katakolon, Greece

Nieuw Amsterdam in Katakolon, Greece

Introduction

This 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam was my 34th cruise, but my first to Europe.  I have previously sailed Carnival 23 times, Holland America and Royal Caribbean three times each, and once each on Celebrity, Princess, Majesty, and Premier.  I consider myself pretty well-versed and experienced in cruises, but I hadn’t taken a cruise in over two years before my trip on the Nieuw Amsterdam, and I hadn’t taken a cruise as long as this one.  My last cruise was a New Years’ trip to the Western Caribbean aboard the Carnival Legend, and my last cruise with Holland America was in July, 2008 to Alaska on the Oosterdam.   I had never cruised in a suite on a cruise except for one trip on Carnival’s Imagination back in 2005, so I especially looked forward to this cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam.

This review will cover the various aspects of life onboard the ship since I’ve already provided a port-by-port account of this cruise in previous posts.  We traveled in the Pinnacle Suite (PS) #7031 on Rotterdam Deck, and I also posted on that earlier.

In Summary…

This was easily my most memorable cruise for many reasons.  First of all, we were traveling in the largest suite on the ship — the Pinnacle Suite thanks to the generous invitation from my Aunt and Uncle.  Since I’m accustomed to standard staterooms, this was a real treat and a definite outlier from my “typical” cruise experience. Secondly, the fact that this cruise allowed us to visit so many destinations to which I had not previously traveled made it an especially memorable experience.  Finally, the company with whom I traveled — my Aunt, Uncle, and girlfriend all added to this cruise.

I’m not sure if it was because we were suite guests, but the service aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam was exceptional in all aspects.  Pretty much everyone we came in contact with went above and beyond throughout the cruise.  Just as exceptional was the food.  I found the cuisine all over this ship to be some of the best I’ve had on any cruise.  The ship itself was beautiful and filled with art, and it had more than adequate facilities for the guests.  Entertainment was for the most part pretty good, but considering the port intensive itinerary, it was not a priority for our party during this trip.  As mentioned before, the itinerary was sensational, as we visited eight ports during the twelve nights.  All in all, this cruise was fantastic and probably my best cruise to date.

Food

Since this was, after all a cruise, there was naturally food available whenever you wanted.  On the Nieuw Amsterdam, there were two primary food venues — The Manhattan Dining Room and the Lido Restaurant.  In addition to these two venues were four specialty restaurants — The Pinnacle Grill, Tamarind, Canaletto, and the Dive-In Burger Shack.  An extensive room service menu was also available, and for suite guests – snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and canapés were available daily in the Neptune Lounge (concierge lounge).

Manhattan Dining Room

We enjoyed dinner most of the nights in the Manhattan Dining Room.  As the main dining room on the ship, the Manhattan offered open seating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as two assigned seatings on the upper level for dinner.  We chose the late seating dinner and enjoyed a table for six by a window in the aft section of the upper level of the dining room at table #57.  Our waiter team led by Slamet and Ming provided impeccable service throughout the week.  By the second night, they knew our preferences, and accommodated special requests without hesitation.  The Assistant Dining Room Manager, Megan paid us special attention and ensured that our every wish was granted.  Starting the second night, we enjoyed most of our dinners with the ship’s doctor Richard and his wife Michelle — they were such nice people, and we enjoyed spending the evening with them on a regular basis.  The food served in the Manhattan Dining Room was fantastic.  It was a definite notch above the dinners I typically receive in the main dining room on cruise ships.  The steaks were cooked properly, the fish and pork dishes were fantastic, and the appetizers and soups were plentiful and tasty.  We found the menus each night to be varied and relevant, as fresh, local ingredients were used on regional specialties throughout the cruise.  All in all, dinner in the Manhattan Dining Room was a really special experience, and we looked forward to dining there throughout the cruise.  As I previously stated, the food was a cut above normal “cruise food” and seemed to be prepared for a much smaller group rather than a ship full of 1,800 guests.

Pinnacle Grill and Tamarind

On the formal nights, we dined in two of the three specialty restaurants.  The first formal night, we chose to eat in the Pinnacle Grill.  The Pinnacle Grill is the upscale steakhouse aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam.  Though it carries a $29 cover fee, it is well worth it.  The menu features an impressive selection of steaks and seafood.  I ordered the rib eye, which was excellent, and my girlfriend had the filet mignon.  The filet literally melted in your mouth, and was one of the better tasting filets I’ve enjoyed anywhere.  We also had the opportunity to have lunch in the Pinnacle Grill on the last day of the cruise ($10) where I had a fantastic shrimp cocktail and a delicious Wagyu beef burger.  The last two formal nights, we dined in the ship’s Asian-Fusion restaurant, Tamarind ($20).  The food here was simply exquisite.  The appetizers and soups were extremely good.  On various occasions, we enjoyed the mixed satays, potstickers, pho, tempura fried shrimp, and spring rolls for appetizers.  The first trip there, I ordered the excellent Penang Red Currty Coconut Chicken, and the second time I had the Wasabi and Soy Crusted Beef Tenderloin.  For desert, the tempura fried ice cream is not to be missed!  The tenderloin, along with the appetizers and aforementioned fried ice cream was one of the best meals I’ve had in my life — anywhere, and certainly the best I’ve had on a ship.  The day we arrived in Argostoli, my girlfriend and I enjoyed a dim sum lunch in Tamarind, and it was also exceptional.

The Lido Restaurant

The other main food venue on the Nieuw Amsterdam was the Lido Restaurant.  This was the ship’s buffet area, and it was split into several distinct food serving sections.  For breakfast, the had a fantastic eggs benedict bar, where one could choose from eight types of eggs benedict; a fresh eggs / omelet bar; several traditional breakfast buffet lines; a fresh Belgian waffle line, and a continental breakfast area complete with every bread, pastry, and fruit one could imagine.  I especially enjoyed the eggs benedict bar along with the waffles.  For lunch, the area changed with choices for a varying “Taste of Nations” line, two traditional lunch lines, two salad bars lines, an Italian / Mexican line, and of course pizza.  Though we only had lunch in Lido a few times (we were in port during lunch on most days), I really enjoyed the Taste of Nations — particularly their Asian specialties.  Overall, the food in the Lido was varied, fresh, and delicious.  The presentation in the buffet lines was clean and appetizing — it was an extremely good option for a meal onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam.

Canaletto and Dive In

We did not try the ship’s specialty Italian restaurant, Canaletto simply because we found it pointless to eat Italian food on a ship full of so many different options, on a cruise that started and ended… in Italy.  On the other hand, we did eat at the “Dive-In” Burger Bar on a few occasions and found them to prepare a very tasty burger.  They utilize a pager operation at “Dive-In” which allows one to go relax at their table until the food is ready.

Room Service

We utilized room service for the majority of our breakfasts, as we enjoyed having coffee and a light breakfast in our suite or on the balcony.  Breakfast always arrived on time, though they did have problems grasping the concept of leaving the food in the butler’s pantry instead of coming through the main door, waking everyone up.  We also arranged for room service to provide appetizers on several occasions prior to dinner.  One one evening, we even ordered some appetizers from Tamarind and Pinnacle, and they were delicious (there was obviously a cost for this).  They really did their best to satisfy our requests throughout the week, as we had some pretty abnormal requests, such as a plate of nachos!

As previously mentioned, the food on this ship was probably the best I’ve had on any cruise.  It certainly was better than the food we had on my last Holland America cruise, and blows away the notion that cruise food is relatively bland since it’s mass-produced.  We found the cuisine onboard to be consistently excellent.

Service

Service aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam truly was top-notch.  From our room stewards, to the concierge team, to the dining room waiters, to the dining room managers, to the bartenders and cocktail waiters — the service was simply spectacular.  Our two room stewards, Mugi and Daniel kept our large suite spotless.  They were friendly and accommodated all of our special requests.  The concierge team of Chris and Nickolai were fantastic.  Again, they went out of their way to ensure that all of our needs were met.  One of them was always available in the Neptune Lounge, and they arranged for everything from dinner reservations to spa treatments to in-room dining.  As previously mentioned, the dining room service was impeccable.  The Assistant Dining Room Manager, Megan literally couldn’t do enough for us.  He personally delivered a plate of fresh asparagus and spinach to the table nightly with a smile, since we’d asked for it on one occasion.  He also arranged for a private tour of the kitchen, led by Petr, the Executive Chef.  I know this was likely because we were guests in the Pinnacle Suite, but it was really appreciated and special, nonetheless.

The same sort of friendly service was found from all the bartenders and cocktail waiters.  They went out of their way to get to know us during the cruise.  Our favorite cocktail waiters, Roland and Fritz greeted us with smiles and conversation on a daily basis.  Again, the service aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam was consistently excellent for the entire cruise.

Entertainment

We really didn’t partake in too much of the entertainment on board, simply because we enjoyed very long dinners and we were dead tired and ready to go to bed on almost a nightly basis.  However, one of the highlights onboard was the Piano Bar, where we enjoyed a drink on several different occasions.  We did see one of the production shows, and it was pretty good — my girlfriend especially enjoyed it.  One evening, we stopped in to see the comedian, but he wasn’t all that great.  On most evenings, we’d have a post-dinner drink in one of the many bars onboard, but usually we ended up in the Piano Bar as previously mentioned.  I did enjoy the casino on a couple of the nights — it wasn’t that large, but plenty big for the ship.  We did partake in one of the “pub crawls” and had a great time despite the paltry attendance of only six guests!

All in all, I’d rate the entertainment on the Nieuw Amsterdam as adequate.  While the entertainment is nowhere near the elaborate shows and non-stop energy found on Royal Caribbean and Carnival, it was certainly plenty for this itinerary and clientele.

Gym / Spa

The Greenhouse Spa and fitness center is located on Lido deck forward, with large windows and a wrap-around view off the front of the ship. I used the fitness center three times on the trip and found it adequate.  I primarily use dumbbells, and they had weights up to 75 pounds, though the lifting area was very small.  This wasn’t too much of a problem since I seemed to be the only person in the area.  Treadmills were plentiful, though they seemed to be almost always occupied by people walking slowly — isn’t that what the wrap around promenade deck is for?

My girlfriend had two treatments at the Greenhouse spa, and seemed to enjoy both of them.  On the first day at sea, she enjoyed a massage, which was preceded by an hour or so in the impressive Thelassotherapy pool and steam room.  On the day we arrived in Istanbul, she got a manicure, and seemed to like that too.  The only negative she mentioned was the price of the manicure seemed to be a bit exorbitant, which can be expected on a cruise ship.

Ship

The four-year old Nieuw Amsterdam is a beautiful ship.  At 935 feet long and 86,700 gross registered tons, she is by no means a small cruise ship, but at the same time, she’s nowhere near being as large as most of the ships our there these days.  This mid-sized ship and relatively low passenger count (1,800 on this cruise) made for a ship that really never felt crowded.  Not once did I wait in line onboard, nor did I have to wait for an elevator.  The Lido Restaurant never had lines except for the first day after embarkation when everyone seems to head straight to the Lido for lunch.  The size of this ship is really just perfect.

The Nieuw Amsterdam is filled with an impressive art collection.  Rich with art at seemingly every turn, one could really pass time checking out the various paintings and pictures that adorned the walls of hallways and public spaces.  Since it is, after all, the namesake of the Nieuw Amsterdam, New York City is the over-arching theme of the ship.  The atrium is adorned with a crystal, icicle-like sculpture of the Manhattan skyline, and the Explorers Lounge is adorned with a huge mural of the New York skyline in the 1930s. The colors on the ship are very nautical and earthy — certainly the antithesis to the Joe Farcus-designed interiors of Carnival.  The interior of the Nieuw Amsterdam had a very classic and elegant feel — I really enjoyed my time onboard this beautiful vessel.

Of its twelve bars onboard, my favorite was the Silk Den.  Located on deck 11, it features panoramic, 180-degree views of the ocean on either side of the ship, and the pool deck.  It is decorated in an Asian theme, and we found it to be relatively empty all week with fantastic waiters.  This was our go-to spot for pre-dinner drinks.  I do love the Crow’s Nest Lounge as well, but it seemed to be the most crowded lounge on the entire ship.  We also really enjoyed the enclosed Lido Pool area.  Since the weather was somewhat chilly (60-degrees) for a large part of the cruise, the retractable roof was closed atop the mid-ship pool.  This created a nice, relaxing, and open space where we enjoyed a few lunches and beers.  One of the great features aboard Holland America ships is the wrap around promenade deck that fully encircles the ship.  It’s a great deck on which to take an evening stroll as the world goes by.

Since this was, of course, Holland America, the average age of fellow guests onboard was rather… seasoned.  My girlfriend and I were pretty clearly the youngest couple onboard.  Though there were a few families with children, probably 90% of the passengers onboard were over the age of 60.

In its entirety, the Nieuw Amsterdam is a very manageable ship — it’s not too big, and not too small.  It’s an extremely pretty ship inside and out.  I wouldn’t hesitate to cruise her again in the future!

Overall

The whole experience was fantastic.  The Nieuw Amsterdam is a really special ship with a very warm, attentive, and amazing crew.  The service and cuisine were equality excellent, as was the incredible 12-night itinerary.  Holland America excels at providing a traditional cruise experience with superior service, food, and onboard experience, and the Nieuw Amsterdam certainly lived up to — and exceeded that standard of excellence.  I cannot recommend this ship and cruise enough!

Two Days in Dublin

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 14

We arrived into Terminal 1 at Dublin International Airport’s and proceeded through immigration easily in about five minutes. While my girlfriend sipped on a coffee, I purchased a €25 SIM card for my phone since we would be in Ireland for four days. For €25, I received unlimited data, and  €50 worth of international calls and txts. For the data alone, I feel this is a steal.  Since we would be renting a car, I really wanted unlimited data since I’d be living in Google Maps to direct me as to where to go. If I were to have purchased the International Plan through Verizon, it would have cost me $29 for only 100MB of data. Given my normal consumption, Id be through that after a day or two. We then took a cab into Central Dublin where our hotel awaited.

We stayed at The Morrison Hotel. A newly refurbished Double-tree Property, The Morrison is decorated with a rather modern look, and it’s certainly a very sharp property. My favorite thing about the property is it’s fantastic location on the River Liffey across the pedestrian bridge from the heart of Temple Bar.   Upon check-in, I was granted an upgrade to a Junior Suite that I requested several weeks before for €25. The upgrade to the Junior Suite gave us a ton of extra room. The bed was super comfortable, and the whole room was decorated in a contemporary look with clean edges and pink neon back-lighting.

After settling in and getting refreshed, we headed to check out the The Guinness Storehouse at St. James’ Gate Brewery. I visited the Guinness Storehouse two years ago, but we really sped through the tour since we were extra thirsty that day. This time, the two of us really took our time to enjoy the entire self-guided tour through the Guinness Storehouse, and we really enjoyed ourselves. Highlights of the tour included taste testing and the Guinness Academy, where we learned how to properly pour a pint of Guinness. We were also impressed by the rich history and the pride that the Irish people have in the beer. At the end of the tour, we brought the pint we poured at the academy up to the panoramic “GRAVITY Bar” atop the storehouse and enjoyed it with a panoramic view of Dublin.  This is one of the better brewery tours out there – certainly in line with the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam – and we felt it was well worth the €16 entrance fee.

After a pint at the Guinness Storehouse, we wanted to make our way back to the Temple Bar area for dinner, but on the way we stopped into the The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub. Dating back to 1198, the The Brazen Head is a must see when you’re in Dublin, and I enjoyed another delicious pint of Guinness there.

By this point, we were famished, so we proceeded to Temple Bar where we had a wonderful dinner at Gallagher’s Boxty House in the heart of Temple Bar. We each ordered the boxty specialties for our entrees along with the bacon ribs as the appetizer, and it was all wonderful. I dined here two years ago and loved it, and it surely didn’t disappoint the second time around.

After dinner, we decided to take a little self-guided pub crawl. We started across the street from the Boxty House at the famous Temple Bar. As usual, the Temple Bar was pretty packed and jamming with live Irish music that we enjoyed for a bit. We then headed a bit away from the Temple Bar area and took a stroll up Grafton Street and stopped in a pub called The Hairy Lemon. We really enjoyed this place, and a friend of mine even recommended the Irish specialties here, but we were stuffed from dinner. After a few drinks at The Hairy Lemon, we wandered around taking in the night scene in Dublin before stopping at The Long Hall for one last drink before heading back to The Morrisson for bed.  All in all, we enjoyed the pubs much more that were several blocks south of Temple Bar, near Grafton Street.  We found them to be less touristy and filled more with locals.

May 15

We slept in the following morning a little more than expected and just did get to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, which was included in the room rate. The Morrison featured a great buffet spread that was heavy on pastries and hot dishes consistent with the traditional Irish breakfast.   One can also order from the menu in addition to the buffet, and we each did that. I had the eggs benedict, and my girlfriend ordered the French toast – each of which were cooked perfectly and deliciously. All in all, it was a very solid breakfast offering.

We walked into town a bit to visit the Post Office and the Dublin Spire.  At that point, it was well past noon, and I needed to pick up the rental car for our drive the following day, so we took a cab to the “City Centre” location of Budget Rental Car.  Sadly, this location is not exactly located in the city center, and instead is in Drumcondra, but I guess it was close enough. Picking up the rental car was painless. Once I started driving back to the hotel, driving on the left side (“wrong side”) of the rode definitely took some getting used to, but I managed just fine. After parking the car back in the garage, we set out for some more sight seeing in Dublin.

We headed directly for St. Patrick’s Cathedral where we enjoyed the park, and took some pictures, but opted not to go inside because we were ready for lunch. We were craving fish and chips. We went by Leo Burdock (probably the best fish and chips in Dublin), but felt more like a sit-down style place, so we went to a place where I’ve enjoyed before called O’Neil’s Bar and Restaurant, right near Trinity College. We both enjoyed some delicious fish and chips along with a pint. After lunch, we walked through Trinity College and then took a stroll through St. Stephen’s Green, the city center park in Dublin. We then hit up Grafton Street (Dublin’s main shopping district) for some shopping with a stops at Harry’s on the Green along the way.

At that point, the only type of touring we really felt like doing was pub touring, so that’s exactly what we did! We had a drink or two at several places in the Temple Bar district, including Oliver St. John Gogarty’s, The Auld Dubliner, The Ha’Penny Bridge Pub, and The Palace Bar.  All of a sudden, it was past 9pm (and still very bright out), so we headed back to the hotel for a dinner snack of sliders and fries at the hotel bar, which was delicious. We then retired for the evening, as we had an early wakeup the next morning for our drive clear across Ireland to Galway and Connemara, where we were to catch a plane for the Aran Islands!

Next stop:  The Aran Islands… 

Two Magical Days in Venice

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


IMG_6726We met my Aunt and Uncle just past customs at Venice’s Marco Polo International Airport about twenty minutes after we arrived.   Due to the location of our hotel in the Cannaregio neighborhood, the Orto Stop on the Alilaguna was by far the easiest location to access.  This happens to be the first stop on the Venice’s Alilaguna Orange Line, and cost €15 per person for the 30 minute boat ride.

From the Orto stop, it was a short, three-minute walk to the Boscolo Venezia Hotel.  Upon check-in, we were informed that our rooms would not be ready untl 2pm, so we stored our bags at the front desk and headed out to explore Venice.

The Boscolo Venezia is located in the quiet Cannaregio neighborhood – about a 20 minute walk from the crowds of the Realto and San Marco Square areas.  We walked around the streets and canals of Venice before stopping for lunch near San Marco Square.  We settled on a restaurant with a nice courtyard where we enjoyed pizza and beer – both of which were excellent.

After lunch, the rain started to come down, so we walked back to our hotel.  Upon returning to the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that we were upgraded to a set of two garden villa rooms.  The rooms were standard sized, but they each featured massive courtyards situated in a secluded rose garden away from the main building of the hotel.  Jet-lagged from the night before, we took a three hour nap before having a nice happy hour out on our patio of the Boscolo Venezia.  We had a tasty dinner of pasta and seafood at a local place in Cannaregio– Ristorante Diana and then retired for the evening for some much needed sleep.

IMG_6703After a good ten hours of sleep, we woke up to a fantastic breakfast spread at the Boscolo, which was free due to my Marriott Gold status.   The Boscolo runs water taxis four times per day to and from San Marco Square, so we took the 10am taxi through the canals of Venice right to the front steps of St Marks.  After taking in the sights and sounds of the San Marco, we proceeded to one of Venice’s most exclusive hotels, The Gritti Palace for a drink on its back patio overlooking the Grand Canal.  What a spectacular way to spend the afternoon!

We followed this up with another (expensive / overpriced) drink at a Bar Gelateria Al Todoro, which was on the water near St. Marco Square.  At that point, we were ready for a late lunch, so we lost ourselves in the winding alleyways of Venice and found ourselves at Ristorante Alla Conchiglia, a cute little restaurant overlooking a canal for a quintessential Venetian lunch of calamari, pizza, wine and beer.  Later in the day, I stopped for about 45 minutes to watch the world go by in a nice plaza near the Rialto Bridge while my girlfriend shopped in some of the great boutiques.  We took a nice, afternoon stroll back to the hotel to have a continued happy hour on our wonderful patio at the Boscolo.  Later on that evening, we took a short walk to a local seafood restaurant for an excellent dinner at Ostaria da Rioba.

After another glorious night of sleep, we awoke to a rainy Venice morning – and it was cruise day!  We packed all our things after a short breakfast and met a water taxi at the Boscolo pier on the Lagoa just a few feet away from our room.  In less than twenty minutes, we were at the Cruise Ship Terminal ready to board our cruise on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam.

Thoughts on Venice…

I absolutely loved Venice.  It’s such a magical city.  It’s the only city that I can think that is purely a pedestrian city (with the exception of the boats and gondolas in the canals).  We thoroughly enjoyed just losing ourselves in the winding streets and alley-ways of the city, sampling the incredible Italian cuisine, and taking in some of the sights in one of the most picturesque cities you’ll find anywhere.

 

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago?: Two Days in Santiago

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1  (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda


The flight from Rio de Janeiro to Santiago was relatively uneventful.  I had a standard economy seat on a TAM Airlines A320.  The legroom was quite restricted, and it was not the most comfortable 4hr45minutes of my life.  But I dealt with it like a champ.

Notsomuch legroom on my TAM flight GIG-SCL

Notsomuch legroom on my TAM flight GIG-SCL

The highlight to of the flight was the meal.  While it was only a standard economy meal, it was very different from any economy meal that I’ve had.  I chose the chicken pie, and it was very good – probably one of the best tasting economy meals I’ve had on any flight, actually.

Chicken Pie... seriously... it was good!

Chicken Pie… seriously… it was good!

I also recall the catering from my flight from Rio to Orlando last March to be quite good too, so maybe I’m having luck with the catering out of the TAM Rio de Janeiro station.  It’s much better than what I’ve had from JFK.

I arrived in Santiago just around 7pm on Friday night.  Before the authorities were able to process me through immigration, I had to pay the reciprocity fee at a very clearly labeled kiosk.  This reciprocity fee sets Americans back USD$160, but is good for multiple entries for the life of your passport.  Credit cards are accepted as a form of payment for the fee.

After passing through immigration, I headed to the taxi stand inside the terminal where they advised me of a rate of 19,000 (~USD$38) Chilean Pesos for a cab to my hostel in the Bellavista neighborhood.  This was a bit high, but after traveling for the previous 24 hours, I went ahead and went with it.  For what it’s worth, most in Santiago advise not to pay more than 15,000 pesos (~USD$30) for a cab to the airport.

I pulled up to a non-descript entrance on a dimly lit street in Bellavista after about a 30 minute ride from the airport.  After buzzing the gate, I proceeded through the front door of the La Chimba hostel.  I had decided against staying at a chain hotel like the Grand Hyatt or one of the many SPG properties simply to save some money on this two-week trip.  The place was an eclectic little hostel with a main common area and several dorms that house anywhere from one to four.

La Chimba Hostel hallway

La Chimba Hostel hallway

La Chimba hostel common area

La Chimba hostel common area

I pre-booked a single dorm with a shared bathroom for the princely sum of USD$30 per night (4 person dorms were available starting at USD$16 per night).  The room was small, but was all I needed.  The bed was a spring matress with plenty of bedding to keep me warm during the cold nights.

Bedroom

Bedroom

Bedroom

Bedroom

Without a doubt, the highlight of the property is its location.  It is situated on E. Pinto Lagarrigue in Barrio Bellavista, which is one block off of Pio Nono – the primary restaurant and entertainment artery in the area.  Furthermore, it was less than a ten minute walk to the heart of downtown at Bella Artes and less than fifteen minutes from Plaza de Armas.

Barrio Bellavista

Barrio Bellavista

Bellavista at Night

Bellavista at Night

The location of this place alone made the $30 per night a no-brainer.  I really cannot imagine a much better location for touring Santiago and for being in the middle of the action.

After checking in and taking a much-needed shower, I met up with an Australian friend who I’d met last March while staying in Buenos Aires.  A group of us went out for the evening to a couple bars – first, to Bar The Clinic (near Bella Artes) and then to Onaciu in Bellavista.  It was an extremely fun night out on the town where I was introduced to the national drink of Chile – the Pisco Sour.  Though it’s a little sweet for my tastes, I really didn’t have a choice but to try one (or two… or three…) of these things.

A Pisco Sour

A Pisco Sour

I awoke Saturday morning to a somewhat clear morning as the fog receeded.  The entrance to the funicular at San Cristobal hill was a whopping two blocks from my hostel, so I proceeded there and bought a 2,600 peso round-trip ticket on the funicular to the top of the hill.

Funicular up San Cristobal Hill

Funicular up San Cristobal Hill

Funicular from up top

Funicular from up top

The views from up here were awesome!  Unfortunately, the smog / fog held around a little bit too long that morning, and I was unable to see all of the the Andes mountains, but I was able to see some vistas of the mountains – the first time I’d ever seen the Andes!

Statue of Virgin Mary

Statue of Virgin Mary

Smoggy View of Santiago

Smoggy View of Santiago

Financial district in Santiago

Financial district in Santiago

My first view of the Andes Montains

My first view of the Andes Montains

Me atop the hill with Santiago and the Andes in the background

Me atop the hill with Santiago and the Andes in the background

After walking around for about an hour, I grabbed an empanada and a Gatorade and headed back down the hill on the funicular.

Jamon y Queso Empanada

Jamon y Queso Empanada

Llama!

Llama!

My next stop was Plaza de Armas downtown, where I met up with a free walking tour.  The group consisted of about ten tourists and our guide, Felipe.  Felipe gave a wonderful 3.5-4 hour, narrated tour of the city.  I feel like this tour enabled me to see all of the important landmarks in the city during my short time there.

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas

Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago

Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago

Former National Congress Building (the current Congress is in Valaparaiso

Former National Congress Building (the current Congress is in Valparaiso

La Moneda Palace

La Moneda Palace

Universidad de Chile

Universidad de Chile

"New York Street" in Santiago

“New York Street” in Santiago

The Santiago Stock Exchange

The Santiago Stock Exchange

Parque Forestal - The largest park in the city

Parque Forestal – The largest park in the city

Parque Forestal at dusk

Parque Forestal at dusk

One of the millions of "street dogs" in Santiago.  The locals care for these dogs, and they are very much a part of the city

One of the millions of “street dogs” in Santiago. The locals care for these dogs, and they are very much a part of the city

About two-thirds of the way through the tour, we stopped at a coffeeshop in the LaStarria neighborhood for a Pisco sour.  The tour ended up in Bellavista, about three blocks from my hostel.  Felipe gave me all sorts of great recommendations for dinner and for lunch the next day.  As with most “free tours”, the tour guides operate on a tips-only basis, and in this case it was well-deserved.  This walking tour leaves daily from Plaza de Armas at 10am and 3pm.  I highly recommend it for a cheap, easy, fun, and informative way to see the sights in Santiago – it would especially be a good way to orient oneself with the city on their first day.

Per Felipe and my Aussie friends’ suggestion, I had a late dinner Saturday night at Galindo in Bellavista.  This restaurant is well known in Santiago amongst both tourists and locals for its Chilean food.  I was starving after a long day of touring, and ordered the empanada a pino to begin, and the “Pastel de Choclo” for the entrée, along with a couple of beers to wash dinner down.

Empanada a pino

Empanada a pino

Pastel de Choclo -- Corn Pie made of mashed corn, ground beef, onions, egg, chicken, black olives, and raisins

Pastel de Choclo — Corn Pie made of mashed corn, ground beef, onions, egg, chicken, black olives, and raisins

It was fantastic.

Dinner no doubt left me in a food coma, so I back to the hostel and called it a night.

Sunday morning, I awoke in time to shower, re-pack my things and check out of the hostel.  I stored my luggage there and had them order me a cab for noon.  Meanwhile, I trekked to the Mercado Central where I intended to have an early lunch, and oh, what a lunch I had!

Mercado Central de Santiago

Mercado Central de Santiago

Mercado Central

Mercado Central

The Mercado Central is the main fish and seafood market in Santiago.  I really enjoy going to markets when I visit varous cities, and this was no exception.

Fresh Seafood!

Fresh Seafood!

Mercado Central

Mercado Central

I ended up eating at one of the many restaurants around the Mercado, and ordered the Paila Marina – a local specialty that translate literally to “seafood soup.”  It was amazing, and extremely filling.   This set me back only about 3,500 pesos.

Paila Marina for lunch

Paila Marina for lunch

According to Felipe, the many restaurants in the Mercado rotate chefs on a continual basis, so they all have basically the same food.  The restaurants on the outer ring of the Mercado are much cheaper, while the ones in the center are more expensive for essentially the same food!

After this amazing lunch, I walked 20 minutes back to the hostel, where my cab was waiting to take me back to the airport for my flight back to New York via Sao Paulo.  All in all, Santiago was a fantastic city, and my big regret was not spending another day here.  I usually like to spend three days in a new city, and this was no exception.

Simply put, I needed another day.

Well, this trip didn’t start as planned

So I was finishing up work yesterday when a co-worker mentioned to me that there was severe weather expected to roll through the DC area on Thursday.  Alarm bells immediately went off in my head as I was scheduled to fly from DCA to New York-JFK at around 12:30 on Thursday — the same time when the weather was supposed to be God-awful.  This flight was to get me to JFK in plenty of time for my flight to Rio de Janeiro – at 7pm on Thursday.  My concern was not necessarily the Rio flight; rather, it was being able to get to JFK in order to take that flight!  These were separate tickets after all, so the good folks at TAM Airlines really wouldn’t care less if Delta couldn’t get me to New York in time.

I got home and started running through my options.  I could:

  • Keep everything as it was, and just cross my fingers that there wouldn’t be a significant delay or cancellation of my flight to JFK
  • Try to fly out earlier in the morning from DCA-JFK
  • Err on the side of caution and take the Amtrak up to New York on Wednesday night to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight to Rio.

If I kept everything as-is, I would have been a nervous wreck, and probably would not have slept very well.  The weather forecasts were extremely ominous, and I didn’t like my chances.  Many times with weather, there are many cancellations — primarily of regional jet traffic (which would include my DCA-JFK flight).  In situations of extremely bad weather, air traffic control tends to get the large planes flying internationally out, and the regionals end up with severe delays or cancellations.  After thinking about all this, I decided that I could not just stay with what I had — I needed to make a proactive change.

My first thought was to change the flight to an earlier flight to JFK on Thursday morning.  Then it dawned on me — I wasn’t flying United.  Since I have status with United, I’ve grown accustomed to being able to make same day changes to my flights — I almost take it for granted.  But no, this flight was with Delta.  An airline with which I have zero status.  Delta had not issued a weather waiver at that point, and it was unlikely I’d be able to change my flight unless they did.

The last option I had was to take the train up to New York on Wednesday, stay the night, and have a relaxing day during which I could find my way out to JFK.  I have a modest bank of Amtrak points from which I could use 4,000 of them to get to NYC, and I was able to find a very reasonable last minute rate at the Four Points Sheraton SoHo.  Perfect.

But then there was a small detail that I had to work with:  it was 6:15pm and my train left at 8:45pm.

I had not done laundry.  I had not packed.  At all.

Fast forward two hours, and I found myself scarfing down a slice of Sbarro pizza as my train was about to depart for New York’s Penn Station.  I made it!

The boarding scrum for the NE Regional Amtrak train DC-NYC.

The boarding scrum for the NE Regional Amtrak train DC-NYC.

The train ride was uneventful — a standard Northeast Regional experience.  It takes about 3:20 – 3:30 to get from Washington to New York on Amtrak, and it’s a good way to go, as it dumps you off at Penn Station — smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.

I arrived at Penn Station at about 12:10am, hailed a cab to the Four Points, and went right to bed.

I slept pretty well in the small room, and woke up at around 8am to do some work.  Again, the room was quite small, but the location is very good and is well situated in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.

My small room

My small room at the 4 Points Sheraton SoHo

After a brief walk around the SoHo neighborhood, I packed my things and headed to Brooklyn where I planned to meet a friend for lunch.  The subway ride was about 15 minutes, and eventually plopped me out right in downtown Brooklyn near the brand new Barclay’s Center.  Wow – what a cool looking arena!

Photo Jun 13, 2 13 26 PM

The new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn — home of the Nets

My friend took me for a roast beef sandwich at Brennan and Carr’s in Brooklyn… awesome!

The Gargiulo burger at Brennan & Carr's in Brooklyn

The Gargiulo burger at Brennan & Carr’s in Brooklyn

After lunch, he drove me to JFK, where I had plenty of time to check-in and make the flight to Rio!  In fact, I’m writing this from the comforts of the American Airlines AAdmirals Club at JFK in T8.  My flight is scheduled out for 7:10pm, I have a drink in hand, and things are good!

A whole bunch of AAirplanes at JFK

A whole bunch of AAirplanes at JFK

Next stop:  Rio de Janeiro!