Tuesday, October 18, 2016



We were looking for a place to travel to this fall for a good price when we saw an airfare to Amsterdam for less than 6 cents a mile. So we booked a long weekend for mid October. We left on Saturday evening on a direct flight that got us into Amsterdam a little after 9 am. The plane was a 767 that has crappy overhead storage, tiny seat back video screens, and no power outlets except in premium cabins. It's only saving grace is that the seats are 2-3-2 so we could sit together comfortably without sharing the row.

Amsterdam airport is huge and it's a long walk from the gate to customs and immigration. We finally made it to the arrivals hall and purchased a 2 day Amsterdam transportation pass that covered train fare to Amsterdam Centraal station and city trams and busses. We rode the train to the city station, then walked about 10-15 minutes to our hotel, arriving at 11 am. Our room wasn't ready for check-in so we hung out in the hotel club lounge until we could get in our room. It took a few hours and we finally got our room a little after 2 pm.

We were feeling jetlagged and decided to take time for a short nap. In the meantime we made reservations for a 6 pm canal cruise with Those Dam Boat Guys. Around 4 pm we started out for a casual walk around Amsterdam city center meandering the streets between the canals and window shopping. At 6 we met up with the representative for our boat tour and were guided with the rest of the customers to the tour vessel.

Most of the canal cruises are on large glass topped boats with 50 passengers or more. "Those Dam Boat Guys" offers an intimate cruise on an open boat with a maximum of 10 passengers. You are invited to bring wine and snacks on board and to introduce yourself to your fellow passengers. Blankets are available to fend off the night chill. The guide is friendly and knowledgeable, although his frank use of language could raise an eyebrow. We totally enjoyed our tour which even extended beyond the chartered 90 minutes.

After our canal cruise we walked back to our hotel hoping to have dinner but the hotel restaurant was closed. There are a lot of restaurants in the area so we walked around and finally settled on a small place called London Bridge Pub where we sat outside under heat lamps and enjoyed some wine and dinner.


We got up in time for breakfast in the hotel lounge which consisted of croissants, scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage plus the usual European spread of deli meats and cheeses. After breakfast we relaxed in the room for a while then headed out for some sightseeing. We hopped on the tram near the hotel with our transporation cards and rode to the Museumplein. The Museumplein is a large grassy open space bordered by 3 museums and a concert hall. We took some pictures of the Rijksmuseum and the I Amsterdam sign. Then we bought tickets to the Van Gogh museum and toured inside. 

After we left the museum we walked to Vondel Park and strolled around for while enjoying the pleasant weather we were gifted with. When we left the park we boarded the tram again and rode back to the hotel neighborhood. We went looking for a shop we had seen the day before that sold souvenir figurines. We found the shop and bought a cat figurine to bring home. We were hungry so we stopped at the Van Zuylen cafe near one of the canals and had wine and cheese. Finally we made our way back to the hotel in time for the evening snacks and drinks in the club lounge.


We set our alarms for an early wake up in order to allow plenty of time to get to the hotel for our 11 am flight home. We walked the 0.4 miles to the train station. We bought return tickets to the airport and caught the next train at 7:25. There was a slight delay on the return trip caused by a breakdown of another train, but I think we made it to the airport by a little after 8. We checked in for our flight and cleared security, then went to the airport lounge to wait until boarding time. We didn't stay at the lounge long since it was such a long walk to the gate and we also wanted to find some bottled water to take on the plane. The flight home was bumpy a few times but otherwise we were comfortable and able to catch some sleep as well.

We found Amsterdam to be a pleasant charming city. The tall narrow buildings have a lot of character with many of them tilted from years of subsidence so that they look like they're tipsy. I believe we will be happy to return if the opportunity arises.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Sydney 2016

As part of our annual quest for at least 50,000 PQM on United Airlines, we planned a trip to Sydney Australia this year. We originally scheduled it in April, but cancelled that trip due to some health concerns. The airline allowed us credit on our airfare, and the Shangri-La in Sydney also allowed us credit for our pre-paid reservation there. We ended up using the airfare credit for a trip to New Zealand which is coming up soon, and scheduled a new trip to Sydney in September, so here we are.


We left home Saturday and arrived in San Francisco for a stopover before our Sunday night flight to Sydney.  Thanks to the valuable discount provided by Jennifer and Paul, we stayed at the San Francisco Waterfront Marriott which is one of our favorite hotels. We had a newly remodeled room on a high floor with a bay view. We enjoyed dinner and drinks in the lobby restaurant and bar where the bartender makes an excellent Caipirinha. An unexpected bonus was that the hotel's proximity to the bay meant there were a plethora of water type Pokémon hanging out there. I caught at least 50 Magikarp. That puts me halfway to evolving a Gyarados! :)


The breakfast buffet was pretty good. We were allowed a 4pm late checkout from the hotel so we could relax in comfort before heading to the airport for the 14 hour flight to Sydney. The San Francisco weather was unseasonably warm so after checkout we sat in the outdoor lounge area for a while and watched planes land and take off. About 5pm we boarded the shuttle to the airport and checked in for our 11pm flight. We had dinner from Klein's Deli in the E concourse, then went to the United Club in the International terminal to hang out until boarding time.

Our seats for the flight were in the bulkhead row 16 on a 787 which has lots of leg room. We initially booked them with an empty seat between us in hope of having some extra room to spread out during the flight, but the middle seat ended up being assigned so Janet gave up her aisle to the lucky standby passenger and took the middle next to me. We have the same seats on the return trip so if we lose the space again I'll take a turn in the middle.

The flight to Sydney is grueling. You eat dinner, then watch a movie, then try to sleep a while, then watch another movie, sleep a little more, etc. It seems to take forever but eventually you arrive and are thankful to get off the plane.


Passport control at SYD is new since our last visit. Now they have kiosks that read your passport and present you with some entry questions. The kiosk gives you a ticket and you advance to an automated gate with a camera. You put your kiosk ticket in the slot by the gate, it takes your picture, and if all is well the gate opens and you are allowed in to the baggage claim area. Once you have your bags you choose between the "Nothing to Declare" or "Declare" exits. Australia is fussy about what foods you bring in and since we had some packaged nuts and granola bars we chose the Declare path rather than risk the trouble of being stopped without declaring it. The lines for declaring were disorganized and slow but we eventually made it through.

We decided not to rent a car for this trip and instead booked an airport transfer from the hotel. We were met in the arrival hall by the driver who guided us to the car and drove us to the hotel. It was nice to not worry about dealing with the morning traffic and finding the hotel. We have a Horizon Club room at the Shangri-La and they are very good about allowing early check in for guests arriving on early morning overseas flights. We had breakfast in the Horizon lounge while they finished readying our room and shortly after breakfast we were allowed access.

It's tempting to crash on the bed as soon as you arrive but in our experience it's best to stay awake as long as possible the day you arrive to adjust yourself to the time change. We stayed up and took a walk around Circular Quay and to the Opera House shopping concourse where we picked up a couple of souvenirs. On the way back we walked through the Rocks area and finally back to the hotel. At 6pm we headed to the Horizon club for drinks and canapés which served as our dinner. We were back in our room by 7:30 and finally allowed ourselves to crash.


We woke up early and had breakfast in the Horizon club, then relaxed in the room most of the morning. We had been undecided about which day to go to wine country and since Wednesday's weather was looking the best compared to the rest of the week, we made a late decision to go today. We took a taxi to the downtown Sydney Hertz location only to find they had no cars available. The nearby Budget and Thrifty locations had the same result. We did finally get a car from a company called 'No Birds'.  I have no idea where the name comes from. We had no in car GPS, but with Google's offline maps feature and Janet's excellent guidance we were able to make our way out of Sydney and to the Hunter Valley.

Our first stop was Ernest Hill Winery, where we have gone on most if not every previous trip to Sydney. They have a couple of wines that have become our favorite, and we usually try a few from their tasting menu. After buying some wine to carry home we drove around wine country a bit in search of somewhere to grab a late lunch, finally stopping at The Goldfish.

After eating we started on the 2 hour drive back to Sydney. It was late in the day and dark by the time we got back to town, but again Janet guided me flawlessly to the hotel. We arrived back in time for evening drinks in the lounge.


We woke up a little later today and again relaxed in the room for a while after breakfast. We needed to return the rental car by 1pm so we left the hotel around 11:30. It was a little tricky finding a gas station to fill up at, and some construction detours on George Street made it even trickier. We did get the car gassed up and returned on time. Our plan for the afternoon was to have a late lunch at Doyle's restaurant in Watson's Bay. We walked the 2.1 km from No Birds to Circular Quay where we arrived just in time to get on the 1:40 pm ferry which got us to Watson's Bay just in time for our 2 pm lunch reservation. Doyle's is famous for their fish & chips prepared from your choice of several fresh caught varieties of fish. We both had that and shared a nice bottle of South Australian riesling.

We caught the 3:45 ferry back to Sydney and leisurely completed the uphill walk back to the hotel, stopping in a few shops along the way. We arrived back with plenty of time to freshen up for evening drinks and snacks.


Today we slept in the latest we have all week. We are just about on Australian time now.  Too bad we go back to Chicago tomorrow.  Today was windy and cool. We went out for a walk in The Rocks and needed a light jacket. We shopped a little bit and then stopped for lunch at the Munich Brauhaus, a Bavarian beer garden style restaurant not far from the hotel. There was a live band dressed in lederhosen but the music was contemporary. I had a roast pork sandwich and Janet had some fish & chips that couldn't compare to yesterday's at Doyle's. We both had steins of beer. Overall it was a nice experience. We got back to the hotel in time to catch the end of tea time in the lounge, and then stayed there until the evening drink service began. Tonight we have to pack and tomorrow we leave for the airport at 8 AM. We'll be back in Chicago Saturday.


We got up early to do some final packing and go to breakfast when it opened at 6:30. After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and used the hotel's car service to return to Sydney airport with plenty of time before our 10:30 flight home. I'd like to say that the travel home was uneventful, but we experienced a 2 hour delay leaving Sydney due to an aircraft mechanical issue. The flight itself was typical (long and exhausting) once we did take off. We had our bags checked through all the way to Chicago, and while we knew we would have to claim them in San Francisco before clearing customs, we expected we could re-check them and go to the gate for our connection without leaving the airside of the airport. But SFO's baggage re-check facility was not functioning and we had to go to the check in counter outside of security to re-check our luggage and then go through security again. Fortunately we allowed enough time between our scheduled arrival and our connection to Chicago, so we made it home pretty much on time.