Friday, February 19, 2016

Cruising in Asia: Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!
Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

This by far was the portion of the trip I was most excited about. At the time, Cathay Pacific First Class awards were probably one of the most reviewed flights around. I was quite happy when I found availability for two on their 777 flight from HKG to SFO for 135,000 American AAdvantage miles and about $136 in taxes.

One minor drawback to this cabin is that 1-1-1 seat arrangement does not offer any convenient seating for couples. Seats 1A and 2A on the left are quite private as the center seats can only be accessed from the right hand isle. 1D/1K and 2D/2K allow you to see the passenger in the opposite seat, but only if you both lean forward and into the isle. Not exactly romantic, but everything else in the cabin makes up for that. The 747 configuration of the cabin which has 3 additional seats in first does have 2 seats in the very front that are quite close together and is definitely the best option for traveling with someone if you can get these.

Just a few days before our flight home, I checked the availability for alternate flights and found there was an opening on the earlier 747 flight. I jumped on this right away both because the flight was leaving in the afternoon, rather than around midnight, and because I doubt I will ever have the opportunity again to sit in the very front of a 747. I was also really hoping we would be able to get the 1A/1K seats together, but apparently there was a family already on that flight that had taken these seats. We ended up selecting seats 2K/3K which worked out great for us as I will explain below.

On the day of our flight we took a taxi from the Grand Hyatt to the airport. As we did not fly in, I did not realize just how far out the airport is from the city. Even with all the tolls and miles, I was very happy with the ~$40 cab fare. We headed inside where I knew there was a dedicated first class check-in area. At this point, we had been traveling for two weeks and we were down to just about the last clean clothes in our luggage. I am quite sure I was wearing something ridiculous looking at the time. The man at the check-in desk kindly let us know that this was the check-in area for first class. While not rude, it definitely had the tone of "are you sure you are in the right place?" As soon as we provided him our confirmation numbers though he could not have been more helpful. Little did we know, we would also be seeing him quite a few more times that day.

Now, if I was by myself, I would probably have run around the airport checking out all of the various lounges that CX offers to First and Business passengers, but I thought I would spare my wife and head to "The Wing" which was just beyond security and extremely easy to get to. To our surprise, the same man that had checked us in just a few minutes earlier was now stationed at the entrance to the lounge. He checked our carry on baggage at their luggage desk for us and welcomed us to the lounge. Although we were not particularly hungry, we could not pass on trying out a few of the menu items.

We decided to leave our things at the lounge and go take a look around the airport. One store immediately grabbed our attention, the Disney Store! Even though we did not make it to Hong Kong Disney, we could not resist buying a few souvenirs to bring home.

It was soon boarding time, we went back, collected our bags and headed to the gate. We cleared another small security checkpoint and were soon called to board. I definitely enjoyed boarding and turning left into the nose of the plane.

This seat is huge! There is no way around it, it is the widest seat I have ever been in.

Upon entering the cabin we found our seats already had complimentary pajamas, amenity kits, and fresh flowers in every seat. However, this is where things started to go from perfect to very wrong!

We noticed it was a bit warm on the plane. As the rest of the plane continued to board, it just kept getting warmer. The captain informed us they were working on the air and as soon as we closed the main doors they would get things sorted. 15 minutes later, we were roasting. Everyone was sweating. One fellow first class passenger had already changed into his pajamas, but he was sweating so much he had soaked them. I  assume he was a paid passenger on this flight (potentially a $12,000 one way ticket!), he was absolutely floored by the situation and demanded that they fix it or let him off the plane.

After another 5 minutes, the captain comes on and says that there is a problem with the plane and we will need to change planes! Although we had priority boarding getting on the plane, getting off turned into a zoo! We had to fight our way off the plane practically. Once we were on the ramp though, airport staff insisted that we were not allowed to re-enter the terminal! After quite a a lot of angry passengers complaining, we were eventually allowed back into the secure boarding area we had passed into earlier. Another 10 minutes here and they finally decided that there would be a new departure gate and we could re-enter the terminal. The same airline representative that had checked us in found us and let us know we could go back to the lounge and they would let us know when and where the new flight would be boarding. That was fine with me, but we overheard that they were passing out $10 food and beverage vouchers for the other passengers. My wife who had plans for these insisted we grab a pair. Before heading back to the lounge to wait we headed to Starbucks where we purchased my wife's favorite new treat that we haven't been able to find since, Green Tea Red Bean Muffins! Unfortunately we have not had another since.

Thankfully, being Cathay's home airport, they had a new 747 ready to board again in under 2 hours. Boarding went smoothly again, but it seemed a little less special this time. The fresh flowers were not present, we had to bring our amenity kits and pajamas from the last plane as they would not be handing them out again, but luckily the cabin was nice and cool this time!

Three windows per seat! but not flowers :(
Everything went smoothly from here on out though. We were soon airborne and ready for dinner! I had really been looking forward to the option to dine with my wife at our own table. Although a little tight, she was able to fit in the buddy seat opposite mine, complete with its own seatbelt. This would be our only time together for the duration of the flight.
Hand written welcome note for each of us
Setting the table
Caviar and Salmon appetizers
Nicer spread than most restaurants we eat in!
My wife had the chicken
and I had this ridiculously massive steak!
and some fine chocolates to finish the meal. 
After dinner we made our beds and checked out the IFE which was nice, but was nearing the end of its life as the cabins were just about to be renovated a few months after our flights. 

At this point we also figured out that the easiest way to communicate was over the back of our seats. I am sure it looked funny, but apart from the very front seat, we were the only people seated on the right half of the cabin.

Before landing we had the option of a light treat and breakfast. My wife went with the fruit and traditional breakfast and I tried out the dim sum.

Overall this was the best food I have ever had on a plane. The food on our JAL flight was good, but we got a little too adventurous with the Japanese dishes. Additionally the presentation and place settings were wonderful.

The flight went by quite fast. I maybe slept for 3 or 4 hours, which for me is a record on any flight. As always seems to be the case, they kept the cabin quite warm and the bedding although very comfortable was quite warm also.

Comparing the flights, I definitely enjoyed Cathay over JAL. This could be partially due to the ground service at their home airport, but primarily due to the different approach from the flight staff. On JAL the crew was very wonderful, but they mostly leave you alone until you ask for anything. On Cathay anytime they saw we were awake or caught their eye they insisted on checking if they could do anything for you.

Both flights were great, and who knows how long it will be until we get to enjoy first class again with prices going up and with our family growing in size!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cruising in Asia: Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!

Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

This was our first time in Hong Kong and we had debated over staying at the Grand Hyatt or the Hyatt Regency TST. We ended up choosing the Grand Hyatt because it was only a few thousand more points per night and because I had heard such good reviews of the club lounge. Expecting full well that I would only be a Hyatt Diamond for 60 days with little chance of completing the challenge, I also wanted to get the most out of the Diamond Trial (which at the time I thought would be a once per lifetime trial, but more on that later).

Arriving at the hotel was easy and check-in was quite quick. I recall that we had booked a Grand King, but were upgraded somewhat to a Harbor View Grand King on the 32nd floor and given access to the Grand Club. As we were not actually in a club room, We had to take an elevator down 1 floor to enter the club on the 31st floor.

Looking back now 3 years at these pictures, I have to laugh at how poorly/hastily they were shot and framed. They should still give you an idea of how "Grand" the building is.
The room was laid out to maximize the view from any point you were sitting or laying, but wow it got hot when the sun was going down. 

I had let the hotel know we were celebrating our Anniversary (a bit late, but close enough!). and they had sent up a bottle of champagne and strawberries.

I have to agree with some other reviews, that while luxurious, the bathrooms are a bit gaudy with the black marble and gold fixtures, but definitely nothing to complain about. 

The best part of the room was the view of course.

We could see the Sun Princess we arrived on docked across the harbor.

We even watched it sail away the next day on its way to Singapore.

My favorite part of the hotel though, definitely the grand club. Somehow I only have one actual photo from the lounge with a plate of dim sum breakfast, I will have borrow from some other traveler's photos here to give you a better idea. Also, since our stay here, the grand club has undergone a major renovation which you can check out in another review here.

Courtesy of One Mile at a Time
Courtesy of One Mile at a Time
The breakfast and evening food offerings were plentiful to the point that we ate nearly all our meals here. The rest of the time, not entirely by choice, we ended up eating at McDonald's. Why would we do that??? It actually had nothing to do with the food, we really are not big fans of McDonald's at all. It just happened to be that the dates we were in Hong Kong lined up perfectly with a promotion that was running at all the McDonald's in Hong Kong. We just happened to notice Hello Kitty plastered all over the windows of one of the restaurants and we had to go in to check it out.  

Each of the restaurants was selling special edition Hello Kitty plush dolls for 25hkd (~3usd) IF you bought any food item. So, needless to say, we bought a lot of food items, even some we didn't eat!

The trick to this whole thing of course was that each restaurant only had 1 of the 4 individual items, and if you could find it in stock, a 5 piece set that came with an additional limited edition! It turns out there are quite a few McDonald's in the city that you can easily walk to. Seriously, look at this map of locations in Hong Kong.

Within two days we had visited 10 McDonalds, and picked up entirely too many Hello Kitties, that still are in the bags they came in! How Cute are these though!?

Luckily, as a break from all the McDonald's we did find time to have High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel in TST.

While a bit expensive at ~$70 for two people for tea and pastries, it was a fun experience. We did show up about 30 minutes early as the line was about 100 people long by the time afternoon service started.

I would do it again if we had more time, but on a 2 day stopover, I would probably not give up valuable time waiting in line for tea.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Cruising in Asia: I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!
Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

(Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

You can read more on the details of this cruise here. It was the best itinerary we could find leaving from Japan and making stops in places we had never been. 7 Days from Yokohama to Hong Kong, stopping in Osaka, Kagoshima, Taiwan, and finally Hong Kong.

From Shinjuku to Yokohoma is pretty quick on a train, but again we underestimated how far it would be from the train itself to the station exit and a taxi. It was quite a trek with our bags in tow. Once we made it to the taxi it was just a quick 10 minutes to the dock. By the time we got there it was just short of total chaos. There were what seemed hundreds of taxis not only in line to get up to the check in area, but also a huge line to get back out. We spared our driver and walked the last 100 yards.

By the time we got into the building though, it was nearly empty. Unfortunately, it was also mostly empty of anyone to direct us where to go. At this point, you are left in the hands of the cruise staff and you get the same level of service you might expect from a TSA agent... We finally found someone to help us check in and it only took about 15 minutes to clear their version of customs and make it onto the ship.

Now at this point, I would normally have photos of the room, however it appears it was so underwhelming we never even bothered to take a photo! It looks like our excitement stopped at the door with the welcome balloons for our anniversary.

I mentioned in the planning phase of the trip that we had gotten a "good deal" on the cruise fare itself. However, we still felt it was quite a bit overpriced for a 7 day cruise in a balcony cabin. A few weeks before we left for the trip though we received a call from our travel agent letting us know the balcony cabin we had booked had been oversold. At first I thought maybe this meant we would get a free upgrade which would have been great, but everything from balcony up had already sold out. Instead we were offered a downgrade to an oceanview room and $1600 in onboard credit (60% of the cruise fare we paid!) We do like to have a balcony, but if this was the other way around, would I pay more than double to go from having a window to a deck... not a chance! This ended up paying for all our excursions, on-board expenses, and we still left with a $400 in cash as it was refundable credit.

Looking back we took hardly any photos on this boat, and for good reason. The ship was actually on its way back to Australia via Singapore after our trip to be overhauled. Interestingly enough at the end of the cruise following ours it caught fire and the final trip was delayed. (Story Here) Luckily we didn't have that to deal with, but it is another reason to consider trip insurance. We actually had insurance on that trip, but it was thrown in as a bonus by the agent we booked through.

The sun princess was tired, very tired. I am sure after the renovations its perfectly fine, but it was in dire need of an update. This was also a 1 time itinerary, so they were vastly underprepared for their shore excursions. We tried to book something for our first stop in Osaka, but it was sold out before we even got to the ship, for every outing! Luckily, I had lived in neighboring Kyoto in college and new just the place to visit. We hoped on a train to Nara that only took about 30 minutes. I had told my wife we were going to see some deer at a temple, and she was not exactly impressed. However, if you have not been, its pretty hard to explain what to expect.

Ok, some deer... hanging out by a temple, that's different. Oh, they look hungry do they? Not to worry, lets just buy some of these crackers to feed them.

Oh you have some friends that are hungry too?

Uh oh... running out of crackers! Here try my shirt instead...

After a bite to eat, you might want to step into a store to enjoy some AC.

Seriously, best part of the trip, I would go back again just to share this with someone.

alright, back to the boat, next stop Kagoshima

We saw some gardens... stopped by a volcano and back on the ship. We actually had some people on the tour that didnt realize we made it to the volcano until the trip had ended. Needless to say people had complaints about that tour ($175pp for what!). We did end up getting 50% back because there were so many complaints about the tour.

Volcano is up there somewhere... obscured by clouds and mist.

Next stop! Taipei via Keelung.
The port of Keelung is about 45 minutes from Taipei, and there really isn't much to see there, but they did greet us with some lion dancing. 

So off to the city we went. First a quick photo stop for Taipei 101, need to get back there some day to go inside.

Then off to the national museum, which was extremely strict about photos. We were not allowed to bring a camera inside.
The thing that was most surprising about this museum sounds pretty odd, but it was the number of Chinese visitors in the museum. No, I don't mean local people from Taiwan, but people that came from China to see Chinese artifacts in Taiwan's national museum. There was definitely a bit of a weird tension between those visitors and the staff. For us though on a tour group, everyone working there was great.

Another quick timed stop to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Followed by lunch at "The Grand Hotel" which was just a buffet, but quite nice.

If you look closely at the image below taken from the hotel parking lot, you can see just how much Taipei 101 stands out!

Our trip also included a stop at the Confucius temple and the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. 

Keep in mind, this whole tour, including the lunch, was the same price as the Kagoshima tour!

After a few days at sea, we made it to our last stop in Hong Kong. We were able to take a full day excursion that would take us back to the hotel at the end of the day, which was great. It included a tram ride up to the top of Victoria's Peak.

Lunch at the "Jumbo" floating restaurant. Which somehow we missed pictures of! And ended with a harbor cruise that dropped us off on Hong Kong island.

More next on our stay at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong.