A Travellerspoint blog

End of the Line

Busan-Fukuoka-Tokyo

snow
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I got up at a leisurely time and caught the frequent shuttle bus back to the airport. I checked in at the priority dragonair counter, headed through to the wing and got me some breakfast. I filled myself with made to order noodles, pastries and sandwiches before heading to the Qantas club as it was closer to y departure gate. I got there to find myself he sole occupant, which was nice, here again I raided the buffet. I then found that y gate had changed so I left the lounge and walked down the terminal. Boarding commenced shortly thereafter and I had the privilege of receiving the much anticipate beep when my boarding pass was scanned. The agent checked the computer and then handed me an already printed business class boarding pass. 3 out of 3 upgrades was very impressive and I was surprised as this flight was not totally full, as the previous ones had been in both classes. I took my seat to find that only 3 of 8 seats were filled so in this case I had one side of the business class cabin to myself. The seat was nice enough for a narrow body and I settled in to my copy of the Finn Review that I stole from the Qantas club. If I knew I would have the space of business class I would have taken The Australian! We took off flying right over sunny bay and the empty looking land there. The service was fantastic right from the start and I spent many minutes agonising over wether to get the western menu or the Korean one. I ended up with western though I was not anticipating a serious 3-course meal on the flight, so I made provisions by stocking up at the lounges. This resulted in feeling ill after struggling to finish the dessert. Thankfully this soon subsided and I went through the entire day without spending any money on food. There was no entertainment on the plane at all which was the only negative about the flight, though anticipated. I was ‘randomly’ (only one in business not sleeping) selected to fill out the customer survey, which I did for my free dragonair pen – I had collected my Cathay one after doing the survey last year to Vancouver. We landed and I was first off, first through immigration and even my bag was the first one (with priority tag), something that has never happened to me before – regional airports excluded. I was soon out in the cold air, hopped in a taxi and 30 minuted later arrived at my exceptionally located hotel. The hotel itself was dated and basic, but like everything in south Korea, very cheap. I went to bed full and satisfied.

The full extent of the location did not hit me until I ventured out in the morning, after a considerable sleep in. It was right in the entertainment district with PIFF (Pusan international film festival) Square just around the corner. This festival is very important here and as such there were a ridiculous amount of cinemas located within a few blocks, like in Cannes. I decided to check one out and saw The Day the earth stood still (private session) and then Yes Man back to back. Both cost less than $5. The latter featured some parts of the plot in Korean, which got huge laughs with the locals. Following this I walked to the escalators (think HK mid levels) to Yondushan park, which featured the rather puny busan tower. This provided a decent overview of my local neighbourhood and the busy port. I then proceeded to peruse the wild variety of goods offered in the substantial old market area nearby the hotel; one could fill a new house from scratch with everything you need here. I chowed down on local favourite Lotteria for dinner before calling it a night. The rubbish disposal at fast food joints here is so regimented I gave up, as one is required to separate everything into different receptacles, all labelled in Korean. At least in Japan its just removing the ice.

I hit up Maccas for their signature breakfast fare before walking the short distance to the waterfront Jalgachi fish market. This was a full sensory experience with every possible part of fish/sea creatures for sale either fresh, preserved or canned. I was on the lookout for some whale meat to try but my Korean wasn’t up to it. However I did find huge dried bats, an impressive assortment of dozens of seaweeds/sea grass and penis's. Most sellers here were old women who apparently spoke their own unique dialect. I then hopped on the subway to the foot of the local hills at geumjeongsan. Enroute I was approached by a brave young Korean who after some time conversing invited me to join him for dinner which I accepted, as he was on his way to uni and I had a mountain to climb. The plan was to take the ropeway and then walk along the fortress wall ruins to a significant temple, beomeosa before taking the local bus down to another subway station. I found the ropeway easily enough and waited for its half hourly trip. The view from the top station was fantastic and I headed off into the pine forest armed with the lonely planet guidebook. This was famously inaccurate and combined with the sporadic English signage resulted in me getting lost. I unexpectedly reached a main road and decided to wing it and went off down a small trail, which was under some sort of work. This trail was much more enjoyable than the previous large scale wide paved one I had been on though it was quite steep in parts. There was plenty of close access to the flora and fauna, many of which was stuff you can’t see in the southern hemisphere. After sometime I reached a stream which was semi dammed to provide spring water for hikers. This was next to an outdoor gym of sorts for senior citizens. From here I decided to salvage my hike, so rather than proceeded down he hill back to town I headed back up, though this time on a smaller unmarked route which proved very challenging. This trail became very hard to follow and eventually became so steep that I wondered if it was an actual climbing (with gear) route. However it was fun and finally the trees began to become less and less and a large rocky outcrop appeared above me. I managed to climb up and around it and to the top, where a mainstream marked trail was. By this time precipitation began to fall, which I had not banked on wearing only a jumper. Then snow began to fall that initially melted but then worryingly began to remain and build on the ground. About this time the wind began picking up and visibility decreasing. I was very glad to be off the now slippery rocks, however I still needed to find my way out. I kept following the ridge for some way before seeing remnants of the wall. Finally I had found the fortress ruins and to hell with finding the temple. I followed these for a bi before seeing a familiar sight though the billowing snow, a watchtower I had visited earlier in the day. I then retraced my steps back to the ropeway. Exhausted, I munched on my packed lunch and skolled my bottle of water. About this time I noticed my left leg was quite sore, almost limp inducing - I most have done something to it during the rocky section. I took the ropeway down, a journey in which nothing could be seen, and headed back to the hotel to shower off the dirt and sweat for my dinner ‘appointment’. Back down in busan there was no snow, just rain. The time soon came to get back on the subway to the centre of town/CBD to meet at the lotte department store. We rendezvoused and window-shopped a while before headed out to a local joint. We ate at a pork restaurant, which offered all parts of the beast in soup. The metal toothpick-esque chopsticks posed an insurmountable challenge (being much smaller than their fat plastic chinese/japanese counterparts), however Koreans also use a spoon for rice, which I commandeered for all my eating. We then went to his family’s home on the bus which was interesting. The dog, a ‘north Korean hunting dog’ liked me a lot, so much so that it could not stop humping my leg whenever it was near me. At first I thought it was in need of attention after being tied up in the small house all day before I decided it was just perverted. I ate some cut fruit (Koreans don’t eat whole fruit) and examined Kingston’s impressive insect collection and fish tank as he a graduate behavioural ecology student doing a research dissertation. The English lesson continued onto the local library (!), before the free tour of busan continued to Haeundae beach. After a lengthy subway trip we arrived and strolled down the sandy strip, popular still in the cold evening air. We reached the end where there was a park and point where I recognised the 2005 APEC retreat building, which looks like a UFO. The location provided spectacular views of the bay, islands and bridges all lit up. We then walked back to the main drag to find the subway closed for the night. He negotiated a good cab price for me and we parted ways after me thanking him for the generous (free) evening activities. I arrived back very late and tired.

I awoke on my final day in the Korean peninsular and began walking to the international ferry terminal. I arrived and checked in (allocated seating), paying the ‘fuel surcharge’ in cash which grated. I then converted my remaining won to yen and received only coins, which was a sign of the times. The dilapidated little terminal was depressing and I was happy to get on the kobee hydrofoil. The interior of the boat was very nice, far superior to AA economy class for instance. The vessel left a bit early and only half full. Surprisingly I had mobile reception for almost the whole voyage, with the Japanese taking over quite soon into the journey. I slept the majority of the sailing, which was amazingly smooth and quiet and awoke just before disembarking in hakata port. Immigration was unusually slow for Japan and my luck finally ran out with customs random inspections and I had a brief inspection and q&a. I changed my remaining us dollars to yen and made some profit. With no public transport options at the pier I had to take a cab, especially with luggage. The rates weren’t as bad a Tokyo, but with the dismal exchange rate, still painful. I arrived too early to checkin at the hotel, as I was informed by an ocker sounding receptionist who had studied in Melbourne. This left me with no choice but to hit the streets. I first had some brunch and then decided to walk to canal city. I miscalculated the distance and streets and ended up lost before finding my way to tenjin, the main downtown area, which was further than I had expected to be but still I place I had wanted to visit, albeit at another time. My leg was quite sore and uncomfortable by this time so I indulging in some retail therapy at my favourite store in Japan, tower records, where I picked up the Franz Ferdinand album a week before release at home, albeit for a premium. I piked and took the subway a couple of stations back to the main station where my hotel was just across the road. I checked in and went up to my room where I was able to rest my leg(s). I wrote abit before plodding down below the hotel to the underground shopping centre connected to the jr station, which was being totally reconstructed (always my luck), where I enjoyed some maccas for dinner.

I popped down to the hotel breakfast before successfully navigating to canal city. I went and saw body of lies at the discount Friday morning rate (as new movies come out in Japan on Saturdays) with the auditorium full of single moviegoers like me, which was strange. A significant portion of the flick was set in Jordan, and after visiting it was clear that it was not shot there but in north Africa, probably Hollywood favourite, morocco. The extras were too dark, the us embassy in Amman was nothing like the one shown and neither was queen alia airport; also the rural landscapes were just wrong. But I digress; the film was entertaining if a little long. It was interesting to see the Japanese pg rating was ma at home. Then armed with my yokoso Japan coupon I went to the centre customer service desk and redeemed my free gift. I then walked through a long arcade of traditional shops to the tenjin district, this time walking over some real canals, not fake ones with fountain music shows set to abba. From here I hopped on the subway to ohori park. I walked around the lake and over to the ruins of fukuoka castle. It was refreshing to see a castle that the Japanese had decided not to constantly rebuild, plus it was deserted, like most parks in Japan; ironic considering the population density. I then kept walking around the lake to a nice shrine before hitting up the modern art museum. It featured a nice small collection of great classic modern pieces from the big names plus Japanese artists work from the same time; all located in a very drab building. There was also an exhibition of contemporary works from artists currently working in the area. Continuing around the lake I cut across it along a narrow spit of land connected with bridges before taking the train back to the jr station and my lodgings just before it started to rain. On the way back I stopped under the 4-story bus station (!) for my favourite Japanese fast food, mos burger, and enjoyed their namesake burger (mosu bagu setto).

I rose early to catch my flight and proceed down to the subway after having sushi for breakfast from the hotel buffet offerings. The airport is scarily close to town being only 2 stops away, however this is limiting it to a single runway operation with a challenging approach path, though just this month plans were approved to assess two sites for the new airport either a man made island (very Japanese) or a large chunk of land ages away. The airport featured all rubber travelators, which are hard to find now, plus the cool escalator-that-goes-flat-and-then-becomes-an–escalator-again things. Skymark checkin was at the end of the terminal and was quite odd with passengers having to checkin first (get a boarding pass) and then check baggage separately at a separate counter in a separate queue. The stingy airport frustratingly had pre checkin baggage screening. I knew my bag was overweight (over 15 free kgs) and was ready to pay the very reasonable excess charge ($10) when they told me it was ok this time, the giggling Japanese girls couldn’t resist my gaijin charm. I went upstairs past numerous restaurants and saw a sign to an observation deck, which I diligently followed, to the other end of the terminal where I was rewarded with a great viewing facility incorporating a little museum/information exhibit and then an outdoor viewing deck. Once outside there were then stairs to an enclosed upper deck that was nicely heated and replete with all manner of vending machines. What more could a spotter want, with all this before security. I watched out in the increasing snowfall as my skymark 767 arrived and also the green jal plane. I then went back down and to my gate to wait boarding on this guaranteed no upgrade flight. Boarding was smooth and the plane was about 90% full when we pushed back from the gate. Due to the single runway we had to wait quite a while before we were in the air, however we made up this time with an air time of less than an hour allowing us to arrive on schedule. The interior was nice new style 767 (Lan not Qantas), complete with PTV’s (that didn’t work). However this was offset by the absence of any service whatsoever by the crew. We were seated, they handed out blankets and that was the last we saw of them, not even a free (or paid!) drink was offered which was poor. Though I could have paid triple the price for JAL and got my missing drink and a meal. We flew considerably off course over the ocean near Tokyo bay, almost up to narita, due to the high traffic volumes arriving in haneda. Bags took a while to appear though they were all neatly spaced with handles facing out when they did, so the wait was worth it. I then hopped on the lonely monorail, which was clearly showing its 20 years of age. At the terminus I transferred to jr line with my weekend discount combo ticket and was soon in the chaos of shibuya. I found the hotel surprisingly easily and dumped my bags there (too early for checkin) and headed for the metro to meet the hains’ in Ginza. I arrived at the arranged meeting point only to find they were running late due to be being a little lost. We eventually met up and went off to a nice Chinese joint for a hearty catch up.

Posted by paceway 06:38 Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

The Day That Never Comes

Cancun-Dallas-Tokyo-Manila-Hong Kong

sunny
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My plan to walk to the bus station to catch the cheap bus to the airport was foiled by the commencement of a steady downpour overnight. I found out that taxi fares to the airport were much cheaper than the other direction so this wasn’t too bad a compromise. I arrived at the airport, checked in promptly and headed for some breakfast at the foodcourt. Soon I was on the half full 757 in an exit row seat, which had unexpectedly poor views. The 2.5 hour flight touched down in the amazing DFW sprawling airport with a long taxi ensuing. Unlike my previous arrival experience here, immigration and baggage claim was super quick and I was in my room overlooking half the airport in no time. This place was pretty plush and featured some interesting facilities such as a kitchen that was used for TV shows and cooking lessons.

I rose and went down the escalator and checked my bag through to manila. I then got a McSkillet burrito for breakfast and headed for the admirals club. Terminal D is a great terminal boasting impressive and generous amounts of art throughout as well as a wide assortment of shops and eateries. It is probably the best terminal building in the US and is well linked to the other terminals with the skylink people mover that gives fantastic views over the whole airfield. The AA lounge was nice and much better than previous examples, providing panoramic views. After awhile it was boarding time and we left on time at about 80% loading. Take off was great as it was done parallel to a landing md80. This was the longest flight on my itinerary but passed quickly. I watched many films on the frustrating semi AVOD system including a Japanese one. The 777 reached the pacific near Vancouver and went by anchorage before heading down again to the islands of Japan. The service was a definite improvement from domestic AA and it was nice to finally receive some free food from AA, however alcohol was still not complimentary, which is disgraceful on a long haul flight. It was also a shame having to close my window shade, particularly over the Arctic Circle on a daylight flight. We landed a bit early in the peak hour for US arrivals with many other AA 777’s at the terminal. We parked at the main terminal where I re-cleared security before heading on the train to the satellite terminal where my next flight was departing from. I was pleased to be back in a place where departure boards are ordered by time not destination. I hit up the JAL sakura lounge which was very nice and featured great sushi, a beer pouring machine and other cool gadgets. They also kindly reprinted me an executive class boarding pass. I waited for the Qantas club to open and headed across to find it similarly styled to local versions and of a good size with great apron views. I appreciated free wireless in both lounges after the extortionate AA offering. I also utilised the free fax facility (AA wanted US$10), which I think worked as the whole machine was in Japanese. Boarding time came around and I boarded the 747 through the magical business class only airbridge and settled in and waited for the plane to fill to capacity. We were delayed departing due to the peak take off period having to wait for many planes ahead though the nose cam was a nice distraction. The executive class product was quite basic being a low yield route but the service was great. The food was disappointing for the cabin of service but nice. I struggled to stay awake by this point and managed one movie, an interesting Japanese one dealing with similar issues as Battle Royale but less violent and more melodramatic. I was glad to have a nice comfy chair and three windows as I fell asleep to wake on the ground in manila after a very smooth landing. We arrived one hour late in an airport that is competing with Perth airport for most over capacity airport terminal operating. Immigration was inconsequential whilst baggage claim was crazy. I thought I had gone to the cargo terminal as crates and boxes poured onto the tiny carousel that clearly was not designed for the arrival of a full 747-400. I now see why airlines have specific baggage policies for flights to the Philippines. There were many special customs lines for overseas Pilipino workers arriving home, who made up the majority of passengers. I eventually made it to the curb and caught a cab, arriving at my hotel about half past midnight and collapsed into bed.

A buffet breakfast was good to have after not having it for a week or so and I loaded up. I hit the streets and instantly found all signs to be in English but everyone speaking Tagalog. Also everything was incredibly cheap. I lunched at the local maccas clone, Jollibee, which was poor and included cockroaches in the dining area. I ended up at a cinema and saw the curious case of Benjamin button, which was pretty average, with a poor start and finish but entertaining middle section. The skeletal elevated light rail system was tempting however it was impossibly overcrowded, as were the roads, so I continued walking a distance the hotel people said was ‘far’ but took only 15 minutes. I think this is because these are the shortest people I have ever come across, which makes me stand out a lot here. I also considered taking a taxi as they were very cheap and did not charge on time, only distance, which was amazing considering the traffic congestion. The streets here reminded me of somewhere in between Malaysia and Vietnam but cheaper than both. I was still a bit tired after having to get up in time for free breakfast so I went to bed early after dining at the maccas underneath the hotel.

I walked down to the waterfront (think Cambodia) and did a little tour taking in the various colonial sights. The history of the country is intriguing, as so many foreign forces have occupied it in the past hundred years from the Spanish, Japanese and to most recently the Americans. This has resulted in a unique cultural mixture that is manifested in various ways including architecture and language. I lunched at KFC that was packed and didn’t really sell much apart from chicken and rice. Ordering a burger was like twisting their arm, however they did have wedges and mountain dew, which made it worth the wait. Even maccas here is big on chicken pieces and both sell spaghetti. Unfortunately the country is very catholic and conservative thanks to the missionaries so I am unable to wear shorts around the hotel, though it is not too hot or humid, which is similar to in the real parts of Mexico. The hotel is also ultra stingy with a no outside food/drink policy despite the absence of a minibar, however the place is so cheap I let it slide, along with the lack of hot water. My strange accommodation pattern of moving from lame to luxury is continuing with my next stop, though I only stay one night in the nice places.

I woke and headed down for brekkie before heading for the airport. I bid farewell to the lift attendants and caught a cheap taxi. The airport was full of people queuing up to get their luggage screened before being allowed to enter the terminal building. This took some time but soon I was at the business counter checked in with a welcome upgrade due to a full flight I assumed. The seat number did not seem quite right on the business class boarding pass stock, row 82 did not exist on anything but a 747. It occurred to me that I was victim to one of cx’s legendary last minute aircraft changes, as this was scheduled as an a330. The laborious process to leave the country continued with queuing for the departure tax, which was more than I spent in my entire time in manila. Then there were arduous immigration lines and security lines. Luckily I left enough time and happily proceeded to the refuge of the cathay first class lounge, I still don’t know why I got an invite for this one as a sapphire I qualify for the business one only, which was nice, considering where I was. Boarding was swift through the segregated boarding lane from the stark holding pen in this rough airport. I went upstairs to find my luck continuing with the new longhaul product installed. My first herringbone experience was fantastic and this is now my new favourite business class seat (sorry skybed). I also was one of a few passengers to get the personal welcome treatment. The only gripe I have with the seat is that it is difficult to look out the window during takeoff and landing, but apart from that it was heaven. To my dismay I only had less than 2 hours to bask in the glory during which I was fed some nice pork belly, had a signature cx cocktail and enjoyed studio cx on a massive screen. I tried out the bed mode and was very impressed, particularly on length; you can be lost in your own little world due to the great privacy and headphones looking out into the sunny sky. Landing came too soon and I was one of the first at immigration and thankfully my priority bag was waiting for me when I made it through, a great reversal from my lat hong kong arrival. I then went to the hotel transport counter in the arrival hall where I got a 5 min mini bus ride to tung chung. My room had great views of the cable car and airport and a strange lighting system. I spent some time before dinner checking out the interesting shopping mall and then hit the hay.

Posted by paceway 19:13 Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

Boeings, Bikinis and Beer

San Juan-Sint Maarten-JFK-Cancun

semi-overcast
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I dropped my car off and then got the avis shuttle to the AA terminal. This hub has been noticeably downsized in the past 12 months with much of the space eerily dark and vacant. The business class check in was simple but the terminal was quite old requiring baggage screening do be done just behind the checking in desk which was strange to watch this usual backstage operation. I went through security for the first time in the US on this trip and forgot to remove my shoes. I explored the terminal and then settled into the Admirals Club, which was pleasant enough but was odd having no free/drinks. My flight boarded nearby via stairs onto the only turboprop of the trip. The plane was less than half full and the trip was a quick hop over the Virgin Islands before the world famous approach to Saint Maarten. I got a nice view of my hotel just before touchdown as well as a healthy crowd of beachgoers. We walked to the new terminal and proceeded quickly through immigration and baggage claim to catch a cab the short distance to my accommodation. 2 minutes later I was in my room to ump my stuff so I could hit the beach. Maho beach is legendary, with photos/video from here often being called as ‘fakes’. There were quite a few people here, many Europeans, as the other main nearby beach had been washed away in the December hurricane. The weather was iffy with very brief light showers every now and again but I still managed to have a great afternoon on my pilgrimage to this famous strip of sand. There were bars at both ends of the small beach with topless girls drinking for free. I saw my plane depart and also my flight the following day. Then the heavy stuff came, Air France A340 landing and the best thing of all Corsair 747 takeoff. This sort of jet blast access is blocked by law in most countries. The traffic mix was roughly even split between island prop flights, private jets and commercial airliners. As the sun set and flights wound down I went up the road and stopped at a little supermarket for dinner and headed home.

I got up early and had some cereal and fruit I purchased the day before and headed for the French side airport, l’esperance. This is the smallest landmass in the world shared by two countries and the difference between zones is not marked by there is a small noticeable difference, with the French area being less tourist developed and more local oriented. Unfortunately I was on the road at peak hour where the crappy island road infrastructure was totally overwhelmed with thousands of people on the move. This resulted in a long and pricier taxi ride than planned, but a nice was to see this part of the island, in particular the main French town of Marigot. I finally made it the airport, checked in and was stalled at immigration where there had no idea what to do with an Australian passport. After trying to get my ear into the local Caribbean French accent they tracked down a stamp and proceeded through the token security check and went into the waiting room for a few seconds before being shuffled by the pilot to the small British Norman Islander. I sat directly behind the pilot, which was fun for the 15 minute flight. The landing in St Barts was the primary reason for the flight, as pilots require a unique certification to land here due to its unique geography. The landing was crazy coming down very close over a hill with a main road on a downward sloping runway that ended up directly on St Jean beach, much to the bemusement of some beachgoers. I disembarked and headed to the immigration window and then took a cab to the main town of Gustavia. St Barthelomy has an interesting honour as being one of the only Swedish colonies in the world, until it was taken by the French in the mid 19th century. Today it is an escape for the uber rich and celebrities seeking refuge from paparazzi. It apparently has the most restaurants per square kilometre than any other place on earth. I arrived at the ferry pier, hidden amongst the ridiculously humongous super yachts from across the world, to discover my prebooked ferry ride back to St Maarten had ceased to operate. This was a problem as I had a flight to JFK in only a few hours leaving from St Maarten. I needed information and headed for the tourist office where I got directions for the tele café where I used the most expensive internet of my life to evaluate my options. I checked the other airlines operating from here and found some apparent availability from their limited websites, but this was found not be the case once I ponied up for the cripplingly expensive taxi ride back over the hill to the airport to find that all flights on all airlines off the island were sold out through till Monday. Frustrated and worried I emptied my wallet of Euros and went back down to Gustavia, however I did get a good view of plane approaching and landing. I walked along the main drag and up to a fort on a hillside that was still in some sort of use. There was a cruise ship just off the island that was ferrying the living dead to and fro the island. I chatted with the young South African cruise ship hostess about my predicament and she informed me there was a ferry coming from Oyster Pond (Dutch side of St Maarten) and would then return and that I could purchase a ticket once it arrived. This relieved me until many other people started to gather, I assumed for the same ferry which I fretted may have already been booked out, like the air service. When the time came I fought my way to the front of the cue as if my life depended on it and coughed up some US dollars and got my ticket and ran onto the boat. I was constantly checking the time as with the estimated crossing time I would struggle to make the checking time for my AA flight. The ferry left a bit late and only half full and didn’t manage to make up any time. We arrived and I rushed off the boat into the waiting arms of a throng of taxi drivers, exactly what I had hoped for. Thankfully this one was a real taxi driver and drove accordingly, unlike the slowpoke in the morning; they are not metered so there is no motivation. Once we hit the main Dutch town of Philipsburg we got snarled in traffic with only the island music to smooth my anxiety. Finally we drove past the airport to my hotel where I quickly grabbed my bag and ran back to the cab for the short drive back up the road to the airport. The checking area was disturbingly devoid of passengers so I rushed to the desk, checked in despite being 15 minutes after the baggage acceptance deadline. Boarding pass in hand I proceeded upstairs to immigration with a long slow moving line. By the time I made it out the flight was well into the boarding process and I got on and finally sat down and relaxed for the first time in the day. The flight was very full and I purchased my lunch in depressing american (notice small a) airlines style. We landed right on dusk and I was processed quickly but had to wait some time for my bag to appear, which now had a ripped handle. I hopped on the airtrain one stop to federal circle where the car rentals and airport hotel shuttles go from. I braved the freezing (literally) weather for a few minutes before my particular properties bus rocked up and I got an individual 5 minute ride to the hotel. It was next to the Van Wyck expressway (main road to Manhattan) with nothing nearby except other similar hotels. At checking I was given some menus for local fast food that delivered for free. I was craving some Asian food by this point and choose china express. The service was very efficient and provided good value. I was chowing down on my chow mein in no time in the typical American Chinese food white box with a handle.

The breakfast was surprisingly substantial for an American establishment of this calibre and I ate my fill before checking out and catching the free hourly bus back to JFK. The AA hub in terminal 8 was new and the premium check in area was nicely secluded and vacant. Unfortunately like all AA employees, smiles cost extra. I headed through the priority security screening and then upstairs to the Admirals Club and got my free drinks vouchers this time. The airport was very quiet at this time of day but soon enough my flight was boarding from the end of one of the concourses. I utilised my priority boarding privileges which was very handy as this flight was packed to the rafters, being a Saturday morning, with late comers bitching about having to gate check their massive ‘carryon’ luggage due to the full overhead lockers. This is in part due to plebs having to pay fees to check any luggage on most airlines in this country. The seats on these 757’s are crap but at least the legroom is decent. I purchased lunch again onboard, as the AA prices were better than airport dining options. We taxied out with the forecast heavy snow beginning to fall. We had to wait for a takeoff slot due to heavy traffic around in the tri-state area, though there was no queue here at JFK. We were soon airborne off the longest runway in the US. We went down the coast, across Florida, avoided Cuba and then had to wait in the air again due to excessive arrival traffic in Cancun. We hit the gate right on time and joined the throng of people in the immigration hall. This took some time with many families and women carrying wedding dresses. The immigration officer was pleased to see a non-US passport and stamped my documents without even opening my passport. My bag was waiting for me and then I joined another long queue for customs clearance. This was in true Latin American style with everyone having to press a button that gave a random red or green light indicating wether you got searched or not. I made it and got a collectivo to my hotel in the downtown area, beyond the zona hotelera. Instantly I noticed the massive difference between this part of Mexico and the areas I had visited the previous year. As we drove down the 7 shaped hotel zone it was very very developed and towards the heart of it reminiscent of Las Vegas. I guess many Americans come here to their all-inclusive resorts and not even notice they are overseas. We drove past luxury malls and the clubs featured in various MTV productions. After constantly dropping of people along the way we arrived in downtown and at my hotel. I was still surprised at how much more civilised this was to downtown Mexico City. This is primarily due to the fact that Cancun is largely a relatively young planned town to support the beach tourism. The hotel didn’t have a non-smoking room available to I was upgraded to the exejutivo floor which was very nice; particularly considering the bargain price I paid. I self catered my dinner but had o be careful as there was a policy regarding brought in food.

I was picked up at 7am and whisked to a closed shopping centre in the hotel zone where participants were brought together and all the tours were dispatched from. This was primarily to funnel us through a large open souvenir shop. I proceeded to my tour bus, which I was pleasantly surprised to find most people were under 40, however the majority were Spanish speakers. We left and drove for a few hours before stopping at a cenote (sinkhole/cave) where one could swim or engage in ranch activities. After this short stop we went to the obligatory souvenir-shop-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-stop for about 45 mins before heading to lunch. This couldn’t come soon enough for me as I had foregone breakfast due to the early start and chose this tour primarily for the buffet lunch. I loaded up on the all you can eat premise and mindful of the typical pay-for-your-own-drinks bullshit walked across the road to a convenience store to get drinks at a fraction of the price, plus this was good to carry around the archaeological site. There was even a shitty ‘traditional dance’ complete with hat carrying tip service. I headed for the bus still trying to stuff my face as the deadline approached for the drive down the road to the UNESCO world heritage site. We arrived at the entrance to the Chichen Itza complex and I saw the entry price and decided the tour was of respectable value, as we were given entry tickets and armbands on the bus. We were split into Spanish and English groups for the tour, which was welcome. Once I laid eyes on the main Castillo pyramid it was clear why this was declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. A fascinating aspect of the whole area is what is still not known about the civilisation and the history of the individual buildings and culture of the people along with the dates. I was saddened to find that climbing the buildings and going inside them was prohibited as of 2007, due to theft and more amusingly Americans falling to their deaths (I don’t know how as they aren’t that tall or steep). I had my climbing shoes on and was eager to run to the top, as I did at the much larger Teotihuacán, but discovered the penalty was jail. The tour was informative in parts and it was very interesting to observe the amazing acoustics of many constructions. Parts of the site were in various states of ruin and many had not been fully archaeological explored until recently, with plenty of discoveries of various sacrifices. It was good to see some real Mayan people surviving here as they got free entry on Sundays, and the signs were all in Mayan, Spanish and English. The guide had photos of the interiors and tops that were now closed to the public including the famous observatory and temple of sacrifice. One unexpected thing I learnt about was the ball game court, the rules of which are largely unknown. Once the tour was over we were given free time, much of which was spent avoiding peddlers of handicrafts. I spent my time checking out some monuments that had been misnamed by the Conquistadors as churches, their true purpose is still debated. Back on the bus it was a 2.5 hour non-stop (thank god) trip back to Cancun. Driving down the hotel strip at night was a different experience where one was bombarded with copious quantities of neon and ostentatious water features. I was last to be dropped off and polished off the last of my Smartbuy supplies from home before surreptitiously stashing the evidence for later disposal.

Ginormous sleepin today after countless early starts and many miles covered. Spent the remainder of the day touring the local vicinity and people watching whilst writing this and soaking up the cable tv goodness. Early bed for another crushing early rise tomorrow.

Posted by paceway 17:16 Tagged boating Comments (0)

Hola

Madrid-San Juan

sunny
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Day dawned upon Strasbourg and I was there to witness it as I had only a few hours to attempt to the see this pan-European city. I first headed straight to the old town and was soon surrounded by trams. The architecture is classic post card Europe right own to the big Cathedrale in the centre of the main square. There were some remnants of the Christmas markets that were half the time signposted in French and the other half in German. The identity of the place, being in the often disputed (in wars gone by) Alsace region, seems quite strange with many features combining elements of France and Germany. However the language is overwhelmingly French and the people clearly adopt a more French culture. I then, basking in the warming sunlight, made my way down to the small district of Petite France, which ironically featured some fine examples of German style houses. Strolling through here I observed a Perth family on holiday (the Dockers scarf was a giveaway) which was unexpected. I then headed to the nearby Musee d’Art Moderne et Contmeporain. This museum featured classic Modern artists (Ernst, Kandinsky, Picasso etc.) on the ground floor and a temporary exhibition of famous local artist. The top floor contained more contemporary and was more to my liking with some interesting works that where for the most part overlooked by other gallery goers, leaving me alone to explore. I then proceeded back to the square in front of the station, retrieved my luggage from the hotel and proceeded to the Lufthansa airport bus stop just outside the station. The bus arrived and went out about a third full on its way to Frankfurt Flughafen. The route passed through the EU area of town, which was a good, quick way to see these sites. A couple of hours later as the sun went down we were dumped at the T1 arrivals roadway and I made my way to my old friend, the skytrain. I checked in at the much shorter business class line and was given my preferente boarding pass and a lounge pass for the Delta lounge, as there is no Oneworld lounge in T2, except for the Cathay lounge which was closed until closer to the Qantas flight time. Who else could pull off all three alliances in one day! I puzzling observed my bag getting a hand written bag tag, but it still got a priority tag. I went through immigration, ‘leaving’ the EU for a couple of hours (as the flight continues to Santiago, Chile). The lounge was devoid of any kind of character and views, but did have Warsteiner, which I helped myself to generously. I left for the gate and was pleased to finally see some progress (new shops/food places) in the painfully slow upgrade of the terminal which was in a terrible state (construction wise) when I visited a year ago, however it is still far from finished. I boarded the plane to find it very full. We left a bit late but arrived on time after a quick meal and an annoyingly wide selection of entertainment (on a short flight). LAN’s entertainment system is one of the best. I forgot what poor climb performance the A340 has as we took off. We reached the satellite terminal at T4 in Madrid and disembarked, passing through immigration to re-enter the schengen zone. Then it was down towards the people mover underneath the terminal that would take us to the main terminal. This trip was relatively long (in an airport setting) however once reaching baggage claim there was a 20 minute wait to see any bags. I reached the efficient metro station and a stop later I was walking to my hotel.

I woke and headed back to airport via the Madrid metro and arrived to find a mass of people for checkin, which was indiscernible as to any kind of airline/flight separation. This reminded me that this weekend was the peak post-festive travel time and flights were likely to be full or overbooked. This played to my advantage when I reached the front of the less lengthy business class line (including many dogs flying) and found out that I had been upgraded, getting the coveted seat 1A. I went through security and down to the satellite train. At the satellite I passed through immigration to leave the EU for real this time and made my way to the Iberia lounge. The lounge was nice, even featuring in seat Champagne service, but alas no wifi. The location was great overlooking an active runway (one of many) with this being rush hour in the heart of the Spanglosphere. Madrid’s T4 is one of my favourite airports because it is an impressive piece of architecture that functions well as an airport with many shops and food joints and flights to everywhere, except unfortunately Asia, despite being a Oneworld hub; although Iberia is rumoured to commence service to the region by 2010. Boarding was late due to airport wide delays caused by air traffic control issues (same problems we are suffering at home) and was a shemozzle. I luckily didn’t have to walk far and got settled in to my first long haul business class flight. The whole plane was packed so it was nice to be the first to get anything. The pre-departure drinks came with the amenity kit and arrival cards (they had to track down an English I94W) and the menu. Then the wine book came. This was massive and was backed up by a wine cart during dinner so I felt compelled to try some, as it kinda looked like a big deal in Spain, plus the beer was pretty average. My first three course meal of the year was great, with some of the best fish I have ever had. By this time I was already hoeing into the on demand entertainment offerings (there is nothing in economy) in this case I particularly enjoyed Vicky Christina Barcelona, which is being spruiked by Iberia/Spain as an Australia type tourist plug. Soon it was time to get some sleep in my flat bed. Unfortunately despite similarities with the Skybed, this business class seat was not designed with Australians in mind as my feet were just too long for the space given, however I did manage to drift off eventually. I woke too find the sun had finally set (we were in the golden hour for ages) and had a play with the google-esque map which was very interesting before watching a couple of dud movies. We landed shortly after the refreshment service and I had an emotional farewell to my noise-cancelling headphones, however it was very quiet upfront anyway. Immigration was typical US style, one desk for foreigners and 8 for locals, but as usual things we fine once I got served. My prioritado bag was already waiting for me and I got a taxi voucher and arrived at my hotel five minutes later. Some would describe the place as ‘having character’ however I call it a dive. However, this was expected through research and in particular the price. Though the free parking and free wifi were difficult to come by in San Juan. The door was very flimsy, provided no sound insulation and the shower was just a pipe out of the wall; but it was clean. I went to bed in very different surroundings to my last in flight sleep.

I woke and headed across the freeway for a BK brekkie before catching the bus downtown to old San Juan. The bus ride was fun with the driver going at breakneck speed despite t being peak hour. I alighted at the bus station and headed up to the San Cristobal fort, built to protect the city from land attack. I then, with my combo ticket, headed to the end of the peninsular to the other fort, built to protect from sea attack. These defences provided a lot of historical information and evoked many scenes from pirates of the Caribbean. Following this I went for a wander into the heart of the old town and enjoyed the traditional style buildings and streetscapes. I veered past the huge ferry piers (big business here) and hopped back on the bus. On my way back I stopped at a supermarket to get some supplies, as this was the longest I would be staying in one place so I could economise and self cater; plus I would fit in more with my long term resident neighbours. I spent the evening marvelling at the 150 channels (imagine how many the real hotels have) of televised wholesome Americana.

I got up had breakfast like at home (cereal and pre-cut fruit) and then headed for the bus stop. The bus took a lot longer to come today, which I discovered was due to the public holiday, 3 kings day. I got off and made my way, with the help of my phone, to the avis office. I was dismayed to find the office closed, despite me checking online when I booked. After struggling with phone reception, phone numbers and evaporating battery life I finally arranged for them to pick me up. Once at the airport I was well looked after by Maria and was soon on my way in a 4 door Hyundai. I headed off down the highway and was within minutes smacked in the face with a $2 toll, which was a taste of things to come. I was heading to the El Yunque (Caribbean national rainforest), the only tropical rainforest in the US and consulted my little map to try and avoid toll roads. I finally made it the national park, after stopping to lunch at Maccas and began a long windy road upwards. This yielded some amazing vistas of lush greenery and some simple walking trails to pleasant waterfalls. There were many people about so I decided to go back via the coast and on the back streets. This was a great way to see the local people living their lives despite the more demanding driving. The east coast centre of Farjado tempted me with car ferries to two nearby islands, but I declined and continued on the mainland going wherever seemed interesting. I arrived back in San Juan just before the peak of rush hour and went over the freeway for dinner at BK, where I met a girl from Berlin who was there for the free wifi and was visiting PR for kite surfing. What is with all the kite surfing Germans? Back at the ranch I washed and dried my clothes at the coin laundry on site at one tenth of the price in Europe.

Same breakfast routine today before setting off early to the shops to get an earthed adapter plug for my laptop. I made it, only getting lost once, to the biggest mall in the Caribbean, las plaza de Americas. Luckily RadioShack was just near the entrance I used and I was soon on my way to my main destination, Arecibo. The directions I obtained from the observatory website were a bit off which resulted in me having to back track a bit, however once I did make up the narrow road it was worth it, even the three toll booths. Before entering the parking lot you had to switch off your phone, there was no reception anyway. The little visitor centre seemed cute and innocent on the surface, sort of sci tech lite, but soon the exhibit explanations were way beyond my high school science knowledge, particularly on the second floor. Outside was a magnificent view of the dish and it was a little different to how I perceived it from Goldeneye. Another Goldeneye location crossed off, I think a bungy jump setup here would definitely be feasible. After going back down the hill I popped into Wendy’s for lunch in the main town, which was packed with diners and drive-thruers. Some time later I headed off for the southern town of Ponce, the second biggest on the island, and the only other major airport. The route I took went through the centre of the island and was very scenic with verdant green mountains. Mid way through the road detoured onto a local road due to a massive bridge being erected across a valley. This little road was a nice windy drive through tiny communities and beautiful environments and was a nice break from the highway. I arrived in Ponce and was unwittingly caught up in traffic which took me to the main square where I saw the main architectural sights, such as the famous fire station. From there I struggled to find the main highway out of town, exacerbated by my poor Spanish. After some clueless driving I found the road to San Juan and hit the gas. After a few toll booths I decided to go on local roads, plus I needed gas. I found a gas station and it took me a while to figure out it was prepaid only. I gave $20 without thinking and found my car only needing $15 to fill up! Many things are very cheap here, however it can be confusing with the imperial-metric mix, distances in kilometres, speeds in miles/hour, weight in pounds, volume in litres etc. On the way back I hit the rush hour and didn’t make it home till after dark and parked right out the front of my room.

Posted by paceway 16:48 Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Putting the Lux in Benelux

2009 begins

overcast
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I began the year relatively late and went down to find that sleepins were surprisingly popular today. The breakfast was typical French fare and I loaded up for a big day of walking. The city was a ghost town and I had most streets to myself. As everything was shut I decided to see the old fortress and city walls. The old town part of Luxembourg is basically a big rock surrounded by a river down below. This provided many slippery paths and roads to navigate due to the frozen rain on the ground, sometimes with the help of railings. It was amusing seeing a dog attempt the same route. I found some nice lookouts to soak up the tranquil sleepy town. I stumbled upon the Wenzel (Wencelas) Walk which was interesting and well signed for tourists. This eventually took me up to the main square in the old town where I did come across a few other people for the first time. I then explored the parks down by the river and competed my circuit going back to the hotel via the rear. Public transport here consists exclusively of buses and like everything in this tiny country, is more expensive than in its neighbours. I popped out to Quick for a Supreme Cheese ordered in my best Franglish (sooprem shez), which was running on skeleton staff. On the way back to the hotel I stopped by the station to pick up my ticket purchased online (for use the following day), which was a struggle finding a working SNCF machine and then the only one that was working was having difficulty picking up my touches due to the cold weather (poor design); I eventually got it and then went to bed.

The following day I checked out of the hotel and headed for the modern art museum (MUDAM) on the edge of EU district, to arrive just after it opened. I got a youth ticket and began checking out the works on offer. All the works were part of temporary exhibitions and there was a good mix of pieces from different mediums. However, due to the low visitor numbers the gallery guards followed annoyingly close, which is a pet hate of mine in art galleries. The section for artists currently working in Luxembourg (which apparently is at a record high) contained the best stuff. There was a doco featuring Luxembourgish content which was interesting to finally hear, as people I had heard in the street spoke French or occaisionally German. I exited and decided to explore the old Grund (semi castle/fort) located just below the museum and again stumbled (literally, I slipped on an icy descending path) onto a tourist trail which I followed for a while before making my way across the river back to the main part of the old town. I headed for the Casino Luxembourg, which now has no gambling and is a contemporary art gallery. The works here we much more avant-garde with some too in your face lefty political for my taste. However, there were some great installations here, mostly videos. I found myself the only person to stay long at any of the exhibits as most we heavily reliant on english to meaningfully interact with them. There was a also a nice video lounge (bean bags and tv's) in a glass enclosure with nice views of the river below. The small boutique here sold its books by the kilo. I had a Quick stop on my way to collect my bags from the hotel and then I went to station and waited in the warm waiting room for a short while before my EC (Corail) train arrived. I boarded and plonked myself in a mostly empty compartment and watched the sun set over the countryside before arriving in Strasbourg (where most people got off) a couple of hours later. My lodgings were this time even closer to the station than the last, so I didn't get too cold on the walk from the station, which thankfully this time was proper sized. During checkin I was given a free Mars bar and bottle of water which was a nice touch from this newish 'boutique' chain. It was also pleasing to have an english tv channel in addition to CNN for the first time in the trip, in this case BBC World. I was tired after walking a considerable amount in the cold again and crashed early.

Posted by paceway 10:00 Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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