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Etihad Airways: New York to Abu Dhabi

16 Jan

Flight: EY 101

Route: JFK – AUH

Class of Service: FIRST

Aircraft: B777-300ER (77W)

There’s much fanfare around the ME3, the gulf carriers of the UAE and Qatar, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. And if you’ve flown any of them, you likely know firsthand what all the fuss is about. Even the most hard-to-impress can likely contend with the fact that compared to US domestic carriers, the difference is quite clear, putting things mildly.

I first flew Etihad 6 years ago when I first ventured out to the UAE. Then, it was, by and large, still a fledgling carrier hardly noticeable in the shadows of big brother, Emirates. And with good reason, it’d only been in operation for 7 years and still forming a distinct identity for itself. That withstanding, I enjoyed the trip then and could immediately notice this was a company big on enhancing the customer experience and attempting to make a difference in the industry. Etihad has grown up quite a bit since, expanding its footprint in many more markets and growing its fleet substantially (including its revolutionary Residence and individual Apartments featured on its A380), firmly establishing Abu Dhabi as a hub for connections to the Far East and beyond. It was time for me to check things out again.

I booked my ticket using AAdvantage miles in First (90K one-way) on my outbound journey, on EY 101 currently operated by the carrier’s 77W (777-300ER) aircraft . While I personally think the triple seven is one of the most beautiful and elegant commercial jets to grace the skies, I’d hoped I’d had the opportunity to book the trip instead on Etihad’s A380 aircraft which, as aforementioned, has much roomier First Class Apartments and of course the groundbreaking Residence, plus onboard bar/lounge and showers for First Guests. Alas, partner mileage redemptions for these apartments have become quite scarce and so I didn’t have much of a choice but to stick with the 777. First Class Suites are available on the airlines’ other aircraft, B777, B787, A340 and A330 And as I detail below, these suites are still some of the best in the industry.

Etihad’s branding team deserve major applause for successfully executing what I believe to be one of the most consistent customer or ‘Guest’ (using Etihad’s designated preferred nomenclature for referring to their customers) experiences out there. From the ground to the skies, it’s quite a remarkable thing. Even the musical theme that plays onboard is a clever soundtrack reminiscent of a movie score and is something that sticks with you for sometime–even after your journey’s over.

Checking in: Etihad is based in Terminal 4 at JFK. It’s largely serviced by Delta but several other airlines, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore, Swiss, to name a few, also call it home. It’s one of the newer and more modern of the terminals at Kennedy. In fact it’s my favorite there. As to be expected, there’s a dedicated check-in counter for premium, First and Business Class, Guests. It was quick and efficient though if I’m allowed to nitpick a little, I found nothing terribly overly special about it, especially eyeing Emirate’s an isle over. Still the representative was courteous and after I was through, directed me to the lounge which is situated just to the left after clearing security.

The lounge was very smart looking, featuring the airlines’ rebranded color scheme and geometric patterns, which I happen to find very attractive. This theme is consistent throughout — seen on other items, including pillows in premium cabins and most noticeably aircraft tails. The bar menu features strategically designed cocktails, wine, beer and soft drinks (including a selection of mocktails). And dining consists of a la carte table service or Guests may choose to select options from the buffet. Wanting to get the full experience of the onboard service, I skipped having a meal and settled instead on a cocktail and a small serving of mixed nuts.

Before too long, the host at the lounge came to alert me, just right before a general announcement was made, that boarding was about to commence at the specified gate, if I’d like to proceed over. Walking up to our plane, I was warmly greeted and immediately handed over to the Flight Attendant that would be looking after me for the duration of the flight (regrettably I do not recall her name now — she was fantastic). She then walked me over to my suite; one of only 8 in First. Next came a welcome drink, Bollinger La Grande Année champagne, dates, a hot towelette and personal welcome note from Leanne, the Cabin Manager. Not at all a bad way to commence a 13 hr journey.

Shortly thereafter, the onboard Chef, exclusive to First Guests, walked over, introduced himself and inquired after what my palate may be inclining towards after we takeoff. It’s a dine on-demand sort of process, so I could order whenever I wanted but he did take the time to walk me through the menu and inquired if I had any questions. For an aperitif, I ordered the Martini Bianco, which was served in a proper martini glass and came with mixed nuts and olives. It was delicious. Next came my appetizer; I settled on the Arabic Mezze: hummus, baba ghanoush and tabouleh. Right after I was presented with a palate cleanser which was described to me though alas I can’t quite recall what it was; it’s pictured below. For my dinner, my choice was Fish. It was most delectable, as good as anything one would have on the ground and served on fine china. Compliments to the Chef indeed. At this point I was sufficiently full though easily gave in to dessert: an apple crumble of sorts which wasn’t terribly exciting but nice and simple enough.

It was now time to turn in. I’d started to nod off almost immediately after dinner while I was indulging in a movie on the 23″ TV featured in the suite. I grabbed my bag of goodies presented to me by the flight attendant after I’d boarded (which included pajamas, slippers and an amenity kit with luxury toiletries) and headed to the restroom to change. Immediately the Flight Attendant came by to inquire if I was ready for my bed to be made and I said yes. In my pajamas and ready for bed, I came back to an elegantly executed turn-down service. The bed was made including a mattress for extra padding and a lovely ‘sweet dreams’ note attached.

I was able to sleep very comfortably for a good 6-7 hrs. A slight complaint, however, would be I felt the cabin temperature was a bit too warm so I felt like almost disrobing at one point but thankfully things did eventually cool down. The noise-canceling headset I also felt a little too tight around the ears (for me). I woke up about a couple hrs before our touchdown in Abu Dhabi and just as I went to use the restroom, our Chef approached me to inquire if I was ready for some breakfast and what I fancied. I started out with fresh fruit and then proceeded on to a simple English breakfast of sorts. All very delicious.

Before too long, alas, we commenced our descent into Abu Dhabi. It was such a brilliant journey that I almost didn’t want it to end. Waiting planeside after touchdown, a distance from the terminal (as we didn’t disembark via jet-bridge), were a couple luxury Audi cars on standby to ferry First guests to the terminal. A nice treat to cap off a most remarkable flight.

Key Takeaways: In my estimation, Etihad offers one of the most luxurious and innovative ways to fly, especially in First, though the attention to the customer experience is palpable throughout all classes of service. The carrier has succeeded in keeping a consistent theme from the ground to the skies which enhances the overall experience. Note also, if you’re transiting to-or-from Dubai, you can book Etihad’s complimentary coach service.

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48 Hours In Dublin

10 Sep

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It is indeed almost unthinkable, though to the jet set crowd, it wouldn’t be a notion that would evoke the batting of an eye. Yes, hopping across the Atlantic for a whirlwind 48 hrs, then wheel around and head back. Sounds fairly nuts. But it’s what I’ve just accomplished as I journey back to the States over the waters I crossed just a few mornings ago.

Touching down at Dublin Airport (DUB) at around 6:30AM local time on the direct redeye  out of JFK, AA 209, I breeze through customs; I suppose one of the mercies of arriving at such an early hour. Next, my task is to chart my way into town. This is relatively simple and straightforward. You have three main options though I’d recommend skipping the taxi line as that can be somewhat of a pricy affair. Opt instead for the aircoach coach service into town (€7 one way) or the seemingly ubiquitous AirLink bus which boasts a frequency of every 10 mins and deposits you right in the center (€6 one way, €10 return).

Temple Bar Hotel right at the core of the very lively Temple Bar area is my choice for accommodation. Note that Temple Bar can be very manic with all the frenzy surrounding the myriad pubs & clubs in this part of town being the nightlife epicenter. Still, one does not get more central than this and since I’m here for a brief stint, I’m up for rolling with it. Check in is relatively smooth and efficient though I’m having to stow my luggage for another hour or so before a room becomes available and the kind staff check me in early.

After a quick nap and waiting out the rain a little (which had been incessant through the morning and early afternoon hours), I venture out. First stop: Trinity College which is a mere stone’s throw away. Established in the late 16th century under the Tudor crown, it is the oldest university in Ireland and indeed one of the oldest in Western Europe. One of its notable and perhaps most broadly recognized alumni is Oscar Wilde. Explore the campus on your own or join one of the scheduled guided tours which are available through the day. I spend a considerable amount of time at Trinity and nightfall is approaching. I head back to my hotel to freshen up before venturing out for the evening.

Next stop: Dinner. Location: Dylan McGrath’s Fade St Social Gastro Pub. As a solo diner, I’m able to grab a spot at the bar which rims the open kitchen. I’d recommend, however, securing a reservation beforehand especially for parties of 2 or more. The ambiance here is decidedly lively and the fare scrumptious. McGrath largely sticks to an Irish base in his plates but certainly builds from there, offering an inspired variety of tapas-style small plates from locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant also boasts an extensive cocktail list and wine menu.

The evening’s beginning to heat up as I navigate may way to The George on George’s street, a short walk away. The George prides itself on being one of Dublin’s longest running establishments for Gay nightlife though to be fair, I witness more of a mixed set of patrons at the venue which tends to be par for the course anyway these days. The music thumps with pop tunes as we all passionately gyrate and sing along (or at least attempt to). This evening, Saturday night, is also supposed to have us witness Dublin’s finest take to the stage and karaoke the night away. Alas, or maybe perhaps blessedly so, the equipment is broken. The drag personas on stage alternatively kickoff an impromptu dance-off selecting random members from the audience to join them onstage; it’s a ton of fun. I cap off the evening at another spot across the river, Panti Bar. It’s just as lively with an equally enthusiastic crowd and good tunes.

Day 2: I’m having a little bit of a late start having staggered into my hotel room in the wee hours. Still, I’ve got my points of interest mapped out for the day and thus venture out just as the revelers are starting to spill out onto the streets of Temple Bar, pints in hand (and it’s only lunch time). I pick may way to my next stop, Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule for hundreds of years. It is possible to explore on your own but I opt to join a guided tour (€8) which was well worth it. Don’t miss the impressive state apartments with the elegantly outfitted Drawing Room and the Chapel Royal.

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Drawing Room, Dublin Castle. Photos shown: to the left, the last Lord Lieutenant (aka Viceroy) of Ireland, The Viscount FitzAlan of Derwent and, on the right, Michael Collins, leader of the newly formed Provincial Government (1921).

Next up, I take a leisure stroll through the surrounding neighborhood. The sun’s out and the citizens and tourists alike are out and about. I perch on a stool on the terrace of a neighborhood café for light refreshments as I missed breakfast, then continue on to my next destination, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Entering the grounds through the rear you come upon St Patrick’s Park as the cathedral itself looms in impressive might before you. The park, or at least the grounds, hold a significant level of importance as it is believed that St. Patrick himself baptized the first Irish Christians in a well on this site with water from the River Poddle which still flows underground today. Spend time here and check out the cathedral which is an architectural splendor. Keeping with the cathedral theme, I then make my over to Christ Church, another one of Dublin’s oldest cathedrals a mere short walk away. It’s another impressive work of architecture and is ornately outfitted.

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Christ Church Cathedral

Night falls and my stomach’s beginning to rumble. It’s time for some nourishment. But first, a quick pit stop back at the hotel to freshen up, then it’s back out on the town. For dinner, the spot is Catch-22 on South Anne St. The main feature on the menu is fish with a variety of other tasty accompaniments. To start I opted for the Fish Cakes w/ spicy mayo while I settled on the Fish Pie for my main course. I found both to be quite palatable if just a tad under seasoned. The quality was quite good however and I thought fairly priced.

My last night in Dublin saw me capping off things at The Front Lounge on Parliament St. It’s a fun spot that’s part restaurant part bar/lounge. It was a good  way to signoff, enjoying the late evening serenity of its atmosphere as tomorrow I bid adieu to this most lovely of cities.

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Megalopolises of the World: Spotlight on Mexico City

9 May

Benito Juarez

There are few places in the Americas that rival the deep cultural richness and history of Mexico. In fact, some may argue that it’s one of  the most important in terms of an intricately woven education in cultural Anthropology. It is thus, against such a backdrop, that a city, one of the largest and most densely populated the world over thrives day in day out. That megalopolis is Mexico City.

 Before the Conquistadors set foot on what the Spaniards would later christen the center of its new capital, ancient civilizations across chiefdoms called it home. Through the following centuries and a tumultuous history set against the backdrop of a thriving regal capital, a megalopolis would be birthed. Religion, being a focal point for Catholic Spain would take center stage, giving rise to some of the most impressive feats in the world of architecture (see the Metropolitan Cathedral in Zocalo and Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tepeyac, in the north of the city) as well revolutions that would give rise to some of the most brilliant minds of our time.

Mexico City has a reputation; indeed perhaps several. For some of its neighbors to the north, it’s likely not a place that conjures up desirable feelings. Its tortured past coupled with a fair dose of media sensationalism has largely shaped these less than desirable feelings. Put it this way, it’s not a place a lot of people have on their list of having been-tos as opposed to more popular tourist beach town draws on the Yucatán or on the Pacific. This mentality is rapidly changing, however, as Mexico City continues to charm the hearts of its visitors and word of mouth testimonials proliferate the traveling masses.It is indeed a majestic city; a capital that rivals some of the best in the world and it’s a place that begs to be explored.

Most international flight arrivals here touch down at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International airport (named after the popular historic figurehead; the very first indigenous President of Mexico who hailed from Oaxaca), T1. As of this writing, Aeromexico and Delta flights arrive at terminal 2 (T2). The journey into the heart of town is fairly straightforward though you’ll need to battle it out with the multiple taxi vendors vying for your business once you’re in the Arrivals Hall. The fare typically ranges widely from 200-400 pesos. Making  the fare purchase with the cab operator before proceeding to the taxi stand to board your ride into town is necessary. To note: Uber is in operation in Mexico City as well and makes for a relatively inexpensive ride into and around town.

Diego RiveraThis city is huge and thus there are many facets to its characteristics. The various neighborhoods that make up the central area also take on its own distinctive flare. There’s Reforma, which has long been the epitome of the planned city with it’s big, wide boulevards (see Paseo de La Reforma), luxury hotels, and ample retail therapy; then there are the neighborhoods of Roma (Norte y Sud — North and South, a favorite) and, also, the ultralux barrio of Polanco, a neighborhood that could almost be plucked out of chic Los Angeles, to name but a few. One our first visit, we settled on no frills accommodation at the Four Points by Sheraton in Roma Norte. It is a perfectly situated hotel in the middle of this very charming neighborhood–with easy access to many restaurants, nightlife and other points of interest. AirBnB accommodations (a choice we made on a return trip) are plentiful as well.

Getting around town is fairly easy and straightforward. We did a lot of exploring on foot which was just fine but taxis can be hailed or, for the more adventurous (and thrifty) the subway is a mostly decent alternative. A one way trip–as of this writing–is a mere 5 pesos (roughly 40 cents). It’s a dependable network, for the most part, and is well patrolled by police officers, so one does have a feeling of safety as a straphanger.  Still, as usual, exercising caution is highly advisable at all times in these sorts of situations.

Metropolitan CathedralMexico City is an explorer’s delight. Being a place that’s steeped in rich history, the city itself is a museum of sorts (and I would argue a place that’s rightfully earned it’s spot as a potential World Heritage Site). Fortunately, varied collections of artifacts, and other prominent works are on display at the numerous museums that dote the area, like the National Museum of Anthropology.  Other historical points of interest like the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace featuring famous frescoes by native Diego Rivera, Chapultepec Castle on Chapultepec Hill, and the architectural delight, Palacio de Bellas Artes where you can catch performances ought not to be missed.

Further afield, the charming town of Coyoacan where prolific artists and activists Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera once lived is a great place to explore. Don’t miss La Casa Azul (the blue house) their immaculately preserved home (and now a museum), the town square with its leafy central garden (Jardin Centenario) and fountain, featuring the drinking Coyotes (origin of the town’s name), and historic, Parish of San Juan Bautista, one of the oldest parish churches in Mexico City.  It is also a place to sit a while and grab a bite.

Other possible day trips from Mexico City include the charming town of Puebla (roughly 2 hrs outside the city) where you can sample all manner of Mole and other delicacies while taking in the sights of city like Puebla Cathedral. 

It’s a multifaceted, culturally rich city that offers visitors a truly remarkable experience. It remains endlessly fascinating to me and I always look forward to visiting again. I highly recommend it. 

New York to California: The Transcontinental Showdown

30 Jan

If you’ve recently embarked on a coast to coast trip, typically from New York to either Los Angeles or San Francisco, you’re likely aware of several things: there are at least 5 carriers offering point to point nonstop flights, these carriers are more than ever in a fierce battle to dominate, or at least, carve out a decent share of this highly trafficked and lucrative route and, premium (First and/or Business) travelers have never been so wooed — with cabin refreshes, fleet upgrades, chef designed cuisines, etc.

All trips aren’t created equal, however, and the class of flight still largely dictates what sort of experience you’ll have. While airlines have one after the other raced to raise the ante for premium travelers, sadly, when it comes to the Big 3 legacy carriers, American, Delta and United, coach class still remains a largely uncivilized affair. There have been some marked improvements, to be fair, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

JetBlue and Virgin America are the additional two carriers vying for the piece of the aforementioned pie. These two, in comparison to the big 3, are likely the better of the pack when it comes to overall customer experience for your average passenger in coach. JetBlue built a business on this but even it has broken ranks with the single-class one size fits all offering and split up the cabin, introducing a premium class, MINT, on these coast to coast itineraries, in an effort to compete with the  Big 3. It’s a swanky cabin that even spots a few ‘closed’ suites (yes these pods have doors that close for added privacy). It remains to be seen however if the customer experience in the back stays in tact or if this begins to slip with more attention focusing on those in the front. We’ll keep watch.

American Airlines arguably dominates these routes. At last count, there are about 13 daily flights making the trip from JFK to LAX. The carrier in the last year or so went through a (much needed) fleet upgrade, retiring it’s long overworked wide body 767-200s that made the trips, replacing them with brand spanking new narrow body Airbus 321Ts (T for Transcontinental). It remains a wonder to me why American opted to downsize the aircraft capacity (albeit adding more flights). Back to this point later. Ever since the inaugural flight, I’d been seeking opportunities to give the new aircraft a try. I’d been on the new 777-300 which was and remains a joy to fly so I wanted to see what the experience would be like on A321.

I booked two trips: one to LA and one to San Francisco in the hope that I could try both Business and Economy. My thinking was that on at least one of these trips/legs I’d get upgraded. As of this writing, I’m on my 3rd leg, the outbound to San Francisco, an upgrade is yet to happen. Picking up my earlier point about downsizing aircraft, it means there are now fewer premium seats to be had on any given flight, making it that much harder to score an upgrade. I hold Platinum status with American but that doesn’t seem to cut it on these routes. So far on these trips there have been Executive Platinum (level above my lowly grade it would seem in comparison) in coach, in fact, occupying seats beside me. If they can’t score the movement up then I suppose I haven’t got the slightest chance.

The flight is a 3-class service; the only carrier to offer such. First is a 1:1 configuration with all aisle access. The pods face away from the aisle offering a bit more privacy. They’re lie-flat beds and are reminiscent of Business Class seats you find on the 777-300s. Business class is a 2:2 configuration, all lie-flight and quite similar to what you’d find on United PS (who eliminated First Class when it refurbished its cabins) on these routes. Coach  sees the introduction of Main Cabin Extra (MCE) to match Economy Plus and Comfort on United and Delta respectively.

Power ports (AC outlets and USB plugs) at every seat is the most significant (complementary) addition to the coach experience in my opinion. It sort of ends there. Yes there are seat-back screens now for personal inflight entertainment (which is really just a parity thing since every other carrier has this) but even there, you have to reach for your wallet to watch any decent programming. There is a complementary section of American’s IFE but all you get is a few NBC shows that no one really seems to be interested in. For anything worthwhile it’ll cost you at least $5. Catering remains in the same deplorable state. Either an uninspiring turkey sandwich or tired looking salad for $10 or, you can get a handful of other calorie laden snacks for heavily marked up fees. The only thing that does not involve the swipe of a credit/debit card is your choice of non alcoholic beverage for roughly 6 hrs. This boggles the mind.

Delta by comparison (though far from being perfect) fares much better than American. It does expectedly cater to the premium traveler, too, but it hasn’t lost sight of those in the back of the cabin. For starters, at the very least, passengers get a choice of complementary snacks: Biscoff cookies, pretzels or peanuts. Secondly, food for purchase offerings are much more inspiring and worthy of a credit card swipe. I recently tried a chef-inspired wrap on one of these flights and it was quite tasty. And, if you happen to be seating in Economy Comfort, these bites are free. A commendable move and step in the right direction.

Bottom line: American has made some nice improvements overall. It has a highly competitive, perhaps arguably the best, premium product on these routes but it still falls glaringly short in its economy class offering. Of the Big 3, Delta does the better job holistically. I’m hopeful, however, that these carriers devote more effort to reassessing their current strategies as it pertains coach and upgrade the experience.

La Isla Del Encanto: Spotlight on San Juan

6 Aug

View from Castillo San Felipe del Morro or 'El Morro'

View from Castillo San Felipe del Morro or ‘El Morro’

La Isla Del Encanto, translated, The Island of Charm is a popular slogan associated with Puerto Rico. In fact, you’ll notice license plates on cars bearing this same motto. And for good reason as I would humbly agree that such proclamation is quite fair. One need only spend time in this beautiful jewel in the Caribbean to get it; it’s that palpable.

Puerto Rico, which can be translated as Rich Port can’t help it’s inherent uniqueness. It’s a blessing, I think, because this adds to its ever present charm. On the one hand an (unincorporated) United States territory, meaning no addnl. documentation (as in a passport) is required for travel and, on the other hand, an exotic oasis in the middle of the Caribbean where Spanish is the primary tongue though English is widely spoken as well, in urban areas, and is recognized as an official language.

San Juan, officially known as Municipio de la Ciudad Capital San Juan Bautista is the capital of the territory, its commercial hub and, indeed, the most populous city on the island.
Arrival here is at San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU). Several airlines operate non-stop flights from the East Coast mainland to SJU. Taxi vans are conveniently situated right outside the terminal to whisk you away into town at around $20 for most centrally located hotels (as of this writing).

Dinner at Yerba Buena

Dinner at Yerba Buena

In San Juan, Condado, right in the heart of town, maintains the pulse of the city. Many hotels and points of recreation can be found here. It also simmers with nightlife and a variety of eateries rim, or are just off the main thoroughfare, Ashford Avenue.
For mouthwatering local fare with a Cuban twist, try Yerba Buena right on Ashford or, if you’re seeking a bit of variety, Ali Baba, which dishes up tasty Turkish fare is also a good bet. Kasalta, further afield on Ave. Mc. Leary offers patrons an authentic experience with local pastries and mouthwatering delicacies on offer. Even President Obama popped by on one of his visits to the area.
Kasalta

Kasalta

Checking In: As far as a place to lay your head down at night, in Condado, La Concha is likely one of the more popular hotels on the Ashford strip. Newer, more upscale additions like the Condado Vanderbilt, however, are beginning to pop up along the strip as well. Alternatively, for something a little less pricy, and still very close to the beach, try Best Western Plus Condado Palm Inn

Old San Juan

Old San Juan


Journey Back In Time: if Condado is represents the city’s arteries, Old San Juan, is the the very heart of it. This part of town is beyond charming with it’s well preserved Spanish colonial architecture, easily transporting the visitor back to a time and place when some of the city’s highly connected populace took up residency here. Opt to stay here instead by snagging one of the numerous apartment/room rentals easily bookable via AirBnB. Quite a few decent choices are present in the area. While there, wonder the delightful neighborhood, indulging in scrumptious delicacies such as Mallorcas, an adapted local pastry, presented with your choice of filling – savory or sweet – at the kiosks in the plazas in the center of town. Or, make your way to Caficultura where artisans such as Edgardo Texidor Rosa whip up stimulating caffeinated beverages which you can enjoy with your pastry. It’s a full service restaurant as, as such, additional menu choices are on offer.
Caficultura

Caficultura


In addition, a monument not to be missed while wondering about town is the old Citadel and fort of El Morro. It’s a remarkable fortress that offers the explorer a glimpse into the island’s history and spectacular views of the ocean.

El Yunque - Waterfall

El Yunque – Waterfall


Further afield: explore a bit of nature by heading to the national forest of El Junque. Wear comfortable walking shoes and be prepared to hike a relatively short distance to the waterfall which unsurprisingly is a popular draw. As you make your way back into town after your adventure, stop by the one of the several roadside shacks/cafés for delicious local refreshments.

If time permits, consider pairing Culebra, a smaller neighboring island with your itinerary. It is easily accessible, via quick puddle jumper flights, and can make for something as short as a day journey. Alternatively you can also access the island via ferry but this takes a bit more planning and discipline. Ferries depart from the town of Fajardo, approximately 37 miles outside San Juan. Please consult the daily schedule ahead of time for the latest travel information.

A truly enchanting experience. Go check it out, you should be thoroughly charmed.

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72 Hours In Oslo

24 Jul

Oslo Fjord

Oslo Fjord

Perhaps it’s not the first city that pops to mind when contemplating the next vacation spot. Even within Scandinavia, I’d suppose its neighbors to the south and east likely elicit more interest for one reason or another. I myself had previously checked off those aforementioned references (see my entry on Stockholm) prior to making my way to Oslo. Well, I recently spent several glorious days in this capital city and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Here are some highlights.

Getting there: Arrival is at Oslo’s main airport, OSL. Flying direct from North America out of EWR, on the regions’s flagship carrier SAS, is possible or seamless connections via European hubs, London via British Airways or Amsterdam via KLM and their respective code share partners American and Delta, respectively, are possible as well.
After clearing customs and Immigration in OSL, getting into town is fairly easy and straightforward. Your best bet is the Airport Express train which deposits you right at Oslo Central Station. The cost is roughly 30 USD (as of this writing).

Clarion Hotel

Clarion Hotel

Getting settled: Check in to your hotel at Clarion Collection Hotel Folketeateret. This hotel is right in the middle of town and very easily accessible from Oslo Central Station, an easy 5-10 minute walk. This particular Clarion (be mindful there are several locations in the city) is also a stone’s throw from lots of dinning, shopping, nightlife, and other points of interest. See my review. Alternatively, if something more in the luxury category is desirable, you may consider the top hotel in town (TripAdvisor) uber-trendy, The Thief, just off popular Akers Brygee and flanked by the beautifully designed Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.

Day 1: Descend from your room to the breakfast hall at the Clarion for a truly spectacular spread of mouthwatering delights. The buffet features a wide range of continental selections plus much more. It’s quite an impressive offering and comes complimentary with your reservation.

Breakfast at Clarion

Breakfast at Clarion


After breakfast, the first thing I would recommend doing is securing an Oslo Pass. It offers excellent value, giving you free access to lots of sights and public transportation, plus discounts at some of the area restaurants.
Oslo Pass in hand, head out to the main pier at Rådhusplassen (Town Hall Square) which is within easy walking distance from the hotel. As you make your way out, note popular thoroughfare Karl Johannes Gate just blocks away from the square. Hop on the Fjord Sightseeing Cruise (Discount with Oslo Pass) at the embarking station right there at Pier 3 where most departures commence.The scenic trip, depending on your route of choice, covers a wide range of the city’s monuments and Fjords. I recommend the Classic Cruise (two hour duration) covering Akershus Fortress, Opera House and several Fjords with charming summer houses.
Beverage break at Lekter'n

Beverage break at Lekter’n

Once you’re back on land, you may want to break for a beverage and snack or some lunch. Lekter’n right on Aker Brygee is a decent spot to grab drinks and take in the picturesque surroundings or, for more meal options, most of the restaurants riming the Aker Brygee offer a lunch menu. Louise Restaurant and Bar is a solid choice. Once you’re properly nourished, proceed south to the beautifully Renzo Piano designed Astrup Fearnley Museum of Mordern Art (Free admission with Oslo Pass). It’s a remarkable piece of architectural genius that brilliantly adds to the picturesque landscape. Some of the museum’s collections include works by Jens Johannssen, American, Jeff Koons and British Pop art painter, David Hockney.
Astrup  Fearnley Museum

Astrup Fearnley Museum


Perhaps you’ve had enough for the day but if you’re still in form and ready for another must-see in the area, I suggest heading to nearby Akershus Castle and Fortress (Free access to the castle with your Oslo Pass). This historically significant complex dating back to the 1300s but made popular during the reign of Danish-Norwegian monarch, Christian IV (1588-1648) transports the explorer back to a time when the courts of the aforementioned monarchy held residence here. Prior to your exploration, I recommend securing one of the pre-recorded audio guides from the staff at the castle shop as you make your way in. It’s worth it and does not cost extra. As you proceed through, take note of the lower level crypt, The Royal Mausoleum, where past monarchs are interred, The Castle Church and The Hall of Christian IV.
Akershus Castle

Akershus Castle


You’re likely just about spent for the day as fatigue’s probably set in at this point. Head back to your hotel and grab a quick nap or, power through by ascending to the rooftop terrace at the Clarion for pre-dinner cocktails. Alternatively, make your way out to Etoile at the Grand Hotel where you can enjoy your beverage on their terrace with excellent views of Karl Johannes Gate. From there make your way to Café Christiania for dinner. It is a solid bet and just across the square. Afterward, cap off the evening at one of the many bars/pubs in the area.
Cafe Christiania

Cafe Christiania

Day 2: You’ve had a healthy helping of breakfast at the terrific buffet at the Clarion and you’re now ready to head off on the day’s adventures. Make your way to the Nobel Peace Center right at the corner of Rådhusplassen (Town Hall Square). Free admission with your Oslo Pass. The museum’s quite fascinating and well worth exploring. Included (with admission) are English language tours conducted at noon and 3PM but do check their website or call ahead for the latest information. The main level typically features temporary exhibits (for instance, Be Democracy, about the impact of Social Media on democracy through November 23, 2014), while the upper level features more permanent ones like the The Nobel Field, commonly referred to as the heart of The Nobel Peace Center. This hall houses the current and past recipients of the award (known as laureates). Don’t miss the establishment’s most popular Laureate, Martin Luther King Jr. who celebrates his 50th anniversary this year.

2009 Laureate, President Obama

2009 Laureate, President Obama


When you’re through, head further afield to The National Gallery which displays works by native, Edvard Munch and others by Norwegian and mostly European artists. Don’t miss Munch’s famous work, The Scream, on display here.
Next up, perhaps after a break, pick your way back through to Karl Johannes Gate and make the trek all the way to the top of the street. Here you’ll arrive at the Royal Palace and its surrounding grounds. Spend some time exploring the vicinity and if interested pick up a ticket ahead of time (at the nearby 7-Eleven) to gain entry into the palace during one of their scheduled guided tours. Please check ahead of time for the latest schedule.
Dinner at Fru K @The Thief

Dinner at Fru K @The Thief

As dusk nears head back to your hotel to freshen up and then plan on cocktails at uber-hip The Thief, at their rooftop bar. If you happen to be popping by over the weekend, don’t miss their Rooftop Sessions featuring the groovy sounds of DJ Dan Bravo and others, live. Libations sorted and you’re ready to eat, descend the elevators to Fru K, the onsite restaurant, for scrumptious fare. The restaurant’s got a chic ambiance but is decidedly relaxed, plus that staff’s quite friendly. Cap off the evening there or if you’ve got plenty of stamina to spare, head back towards your hotel and party the night away at popular trendy spot, Stratos, on the 12th floor of the Folketeateret building (same complex as the Clarion). Gay and Lesbian travelers: It’s not an overly simmering nightlife locale though popular longstanding establishments, London Pub and So (Lesbian) are decent spots for a pleasurable night out.

Vigeland Park

Vigeland Park

Day 3: It’s a day to soak up the sun in the park. Hopefully you’re traveling in the summer when the temperatures can be quite pleasant. Head to Vigeland Park (Tram 11 or 19 to Majorstuen or Tram 12 to Vigelandsparken). This is expansive ground featuring over 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland (1869 – 1943). Also check out the nearby museum (Free admission with your Oslo Pass) once you’ve had your fill of the park.
Afterward, break for lunch at popular Jacob Aall Brasserie and Bar. The Majorstuen location sits just at the top of the street Bogstadsveien close to the Majorstuen metro/tram stop and a very short walk from the park. Once lunch is sorted, get back on the tram, or if you’re feeling particularly athletic, walk back to Rådhusplassen. Hop on the ferry (91) to Viking Ship Museum. Both transfer and admission to museum is free with your Oslo Pass. The museum houses truly remarkable pieces of Norwegian history, salvaged Viking ship wreckages: The Oseberg , Gokstad and Tune, dating over a thousand years old.
You’re likely through sightseeing for the day. Head back to the hotel, rest up, and then head out to Oslo’s bohemian or likely dubbed by some, hipster, neighborhood, Grunerlokka. For an alternative to traditional Norwegian/Scandinavian fare, grab a seat at neighborhood hotspot, Delicatessen which serves up tasty cocktails and Spanish tapas with tons of charm and personality. It’s a lovely spot to end the evening.

All told, a remarkable experience and city. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and I cannot wait to return.

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Journeying Through Jordan

22 May

Treasury at Petra

Treasury at Petra


It’s likely an area, instinctively, one may shy away from due to the unrest in neighboring countries. Syria after all is a bordering nation to the north and Egypt flanks it to the southwest. This is certainly understandable but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that with the proper amount of research and preparedness, squashing such a concern is possible.
Having said that, of course, as with any place, and as common sense would dictate, one need exercise the right amount of caution. As a side note, I highly recommend US nationals traveling to regions with a history of problems take the time to register with the US Dept. of State Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Smart Traveler Enrolment Program or STEP as an additional safety precaution measure. Armed with all your research and precautions in tact, it’s time to embark on your journey.

Steeped in history that dates back centuries, Jordan is a place that’s endlessly fascinating. It’s home to one of the New 7 World Wonders, Petra, Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon), the capital and bustling city of Amman, and just miles to the north of Amman, the mightily impressive ancient Roman city of Jerash, a must see; plus, the magnificent Dead Sea.

Amman is the main gateway to Jordan. From North America, One World Carrier, Royal Air Jordanian flies directly to Amman, Queen Alia International Airport, from NY-JFK. Connections are also possible via European hubs like London Heathrow. Entry visas for visitors can be obtained upon arrival in Amman. The journey into town is fairly straightforward via taxi right outside the main terminal or as I understand it via Airport Express Bus which takes you to the 7th Circle.
Though several decent choices exist for your hotel stay, I highly recommend the Four Seasons Hotel in the 5th Circle. The nightly rate for a hotel its caliber is attractive and the staff and experience are well worth it.

Tea Service - Four Seasons

Tea Service – Four Seasons

While in Amman, do not miss the impressive Citadel (Jabal al-Qal’a in Arabic) and the city market for some good retail therapy. When you’re through sightseeing, head to Cantaloupe Gastro Pub in the 1st Circle off Rainbow St. for pre-dinner cocktails. The picturesque views from the terrace alone is well worth it. Plus the staff are super friendly and accommodating.
Remain at Cantaloupe for dinner or better yet, for some scrumptious traditional Jordanian fare, head to nearby Sufra Restaurant. To be forewarned, do note that Sufra does not serve alcoholic beverages (apparently due to its proximity to a nearby mosque). Some hits on the menu for me: Mufarakeh (braised diced potatoes with eggs and onions) and Jaj (clay pot slowly baked seasoned chicken and w/ coriander, pine nuts, and vegetables). Another that was highly recommended though I didn’t get to try due to dietary restrictions, Mansaf (rice based served w/ Jameed sauce, lamb chunks almonds and pine seeds). After dinner, head to Books@Cafe to cap off the evening. It has a fun ambiance and the scene’s quite vibrant.

Just a little over 30 miles (approx. 50 minutes to an hr. drive) from Amman is that must-see ancient Roman city of Jerash. It’s a well preserved ruin dating back centuries and rivaling anything that can be found in Rome or Pompeii (it is sometimes referred to as the Pompeii of the east) without the crowds. Take your time and explore the grounds–it’s quite an impressive sight to see. There are Guides (if you’re so inclined) at the entrance that can lead you through, for a fee, but that’s just an option. After you’re through and have worked up an appetite, Green Valley Restuarant is a decent choice for a lunch spot on your way back into town.

Ancient City of Jerash

Ancient City of Jerash


Further afield, the destinations of Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, the Dead Sea, etc., await. These can be done in parts as you progress on your journey but if time’s limited, I would suggest making sure Petra and possibly the Dead Sea are items you check off your list before leaving Jordan. It is conceivable to make day journeys from Amman to these places. The Dead Sea is relatively easy; it’s just about 52 miles southwest of Amman and should take approximately 1.5 hrs. by car. Petra is much further south and I would say give yourself 3.5 to 4 hrs. to make the journey. You’ll need time (and comfortable shoes) to explore Petra. It is a must-see. The Treasury is a marvel to behold but also make sure you continue all the way to the summit. You’ll realize why this massive complex is on the list of World Wonders.
Jordan is a sensational place steeped in history and culture. I was perfectly charmed by it and can’t wait to return.
Petra

Petra

Authors Note: If your itinerary takes you to destinations in neighboring countries, check out my entries on Israel and Egypt

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