Thursday, May 30, 2024

Carefree in Cairns at ‘Oz Fest 20’

It’s gotten to be an annual habit for Kathy and Brian.

Oz Fest is the name of a “FlyerTalk Do,” or get-together, organized by Australian members of the FlyerTalk internet forum for other members from around the world. The two of us stumbled upon the fourth one, held in Melbourne in 2007, and have been returning annually ever since.

For us it was 13 consecutive Oz Fests until Covid got in the way for two years, and three more since then, for a total attendance at 16 of 20 Oz Fests.

We’ve met a lot of great people, made some lifelong friendships, and have seen more of Australia than most Australians have (according to Aussies).

Our second visit to Cairns was at least as much fun as our first.

The Hilton was a decent property in a terrific location. We never tired of our waterfront view.

Our first “official” FlyerTalk dinner was Friday night at Dundee’s, around the corner from the Hilton.

The evening included a surprise birthday cake and a round of Happy Birthday for Kathy and our friend Sue, both of whom were celebrating birthdays.

Saturday featured a one-hour ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, originally built in the 1880s as a mining train.

We visited the town of Kuranda long enough to get a (drum roll…) tourism complex. Check out the sign.

Then it was a ride back down on the Kuranda Skyrail gondola system.

A dinner cruise featured good fellowship and good food Saturday evening.

Sunday afternoon a number of us took a 45-minute catamaran ride out to Green Island, with plans to view the Great Barrier Reef by snorkeling or (our choice) a glass-bottom boat ride. 

The trip out was so choppy that we contented ourselves with walking around the highly developed island for awhile. 

Fortunately the trip back was considerably smoother.

Our farewell dinner Sunday evening took place at the Cairns RSL, Australia’s Returned & Services League, a benevolent organization for current and former members of Australia’s military forces.

Almost before we knew it, another Oz Fest had come to an end. 

Volunteers have already stepped up to organize next year’s Oz Fest in Adelaide, and we’ve signed up.

Our trip home featured flights at reasonable hours, starting Monday noon with a two-hour flight to Brisbane on Qantas.

We stayed at a reasonably swanky Pullman, part of the Accor hotel chain, where our room featured a great view of the BNE control tower.

We could barely make out the air traffic controllers moving around. Are they peering back at us?

Two of our Brisbane-based friends, Bevan and Ross, joined us for drinks and dinner.

Tuesday morning we boarded a United 787 and flew Polaris business class to SFO.

The flight was fine, although we found the United business suite a little more crowded than those we’ve experienced on other airlines, including most recently Fiji.

It was also possibly the bumpiest transoceanic flight we’ve ever experienced.

Once landed at SFO, we took the familiar walk across most of the terminal to reach our domestic UA connection to SEA. 

The TSA checkpoint was somewhat chaotic and crowded, featuring a longer wait in the PreCheck line than the regular line.

A friendly line-minder confirmed that “it’s always like that.”

Sadly, we were seated in economy for the short SFO-SEA hop, but had plenty of room in Row 21 exit row seats.

We stopped for the night at the SEA DoubleTree, giving up our usual tower room for a fairly dingy room near the pool. It was worth it for a nap after our nearly 20-hour trip from Brisbane.

We tried out Sharp’s Roaster House for an early dinner one block up and across International Boulevard. After two disappointing visits over the past decade, we were happy we’d read the many positive reviews and given it another chance. The Happy Hour menu suited us nicely. 

After a few hours of sleep, we particularly appreciated the Alaska Lounge barista-made Cappuccinos before boarding our noontime flight to Bellingham.

We even got upgraded to first on the regional jet for the 25-minute SEA-BLI flight. Whoopee! It was one of the bumpiest short flights we’ve experienced. What is it about the weather in late May?

One Birch Bay Village neighbor picked us up and drove us home. Our garden looks terrific, thanks to another neighbor’s efforts.

It’s always great to be back home, especially when the sun is shining.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Trip to Cairns

We enjoyed a pleasant onward journey from LAX to Nadi, Fiji (NAN)!to Sydney (SYD) to Cairns (CNS).

Fiji Airways offered us our choice of OneWorld or Star.Alliance Lounge at the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT). The best news is that Fiji (FJ) is now participating in TSA PreCheck, so we zipped through an empty line, bypassing at least of couple of hundred passengers queued in the regular line.

As our flight was departing just before Midnight, we didn’t eat or drink, other than one token glass of Champagne.

It’s a fair walk of 10 minutes to the hoarding gates, and Fiji annoyingly requested passengers to be there 90 minutes before the flight completely unnecessarily. We were waiting at least 15 minutes before the crew arrived.

Eventually we boarded the A350 and settled in.

Kathy went straight to sleep, but Brian savored a pastrami sandwich first.

We both got several hours of sleep in very comfortable flatbed seats on this 11-hour flight. We enjoyed blintzes for breakfast.

Fiji is 19 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Saving Time, so we landed at NAN in the dark around 6 AM. We love the views from the two cameras. The green shape is the forward landing gear down.

Soon we were parked at the gate.

The transit line for connecting flights was empty, and within a few minutes we were seated in the pleasant Fiji Premier Lounge, with its striking wall of (real) plants.

We felt no need of showers or anything to eat, so just relaxed before boarding the very same A350, this time bound for Sydney.

About four hours later we were landing at SYD.

Immigration was a breeze with its photo ID gates, our room at the Rydges Hotel across from International Arrivals was ready before noon, and we relaxed in comfort.

The next morning we walked across the street to the free Qantas transfer bus, preferred our boarding passes, cleared security, and stood for the 10-minute airside bus ride to the Qantas domestic terminal.

After a visit to the Qantas Business Lounge, and a queue for excellent Cappuccinos,we boarded our QF flight to CNS.

Three hours and an Uber ride later, we arrived at the Cairns Hilton, our home for the next five nights.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Bound for Oz

We’re en route to Australia, our 18th trip there since our first visit in 2007, and our 16th time to attend Oz Fest, a FlyerTalk “Do” or get-together sponsored by volunteer  FT members for other members.

We’ve seen a lot of Australia (and New Zealand) and met some wonderful people along the way, at least a dozen of whom have visited us at our house over the past 17 years.

First, a pro tip. Most foreign nationals are required to download an app and obtain a form of visa called an Electronic Travel Authority or ETA.

It only takes a few minutes and costs AUD $20, a bit over USD $13. Just make sure you’re careful when responding to the questions about criminal convictions, and take note that NO is listed above YES for those.

Brian, still sipping the morning’s first cup of coffee, failed to notice that, and was shocked to learn his application had been refused, until he reread his YES response to “convicted of domestic abuse” and discovered why. Oops!

A half an hour of filling out a supplementary Australian government form resulted in a surprisingly quick approval. Whew! We were going to Australia after all.

We’ll fast forward to our departure day from BLI, Bellingham International Airport.

As we waited to board our flight to SEA, Kathy noticed availability on a SEA-LAX flight two hours earlier, landing at 6:30 rather than 8:30. Not only that, there were five open first class seats, while we were consigned to economy on our original flight.

She made phone contact with Alaska and finalized the change literally as we were boarding.

After a one-hour stop in an Alaska Lounge, we were flying in SkyWest Airlines EMB 175 first class seats, enjoying a light meal, and even catching a glimpse of Oregon’s Crater Lake from 35,000 feet, as announced by our pilot.

We often find it confusing to reach the hotel shuttle pickup areas at LAX, but after three earlier stops here this year we’re getting better at it.

We’re staying at the H Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton. We waved a shuttle down quite promptly (the big H on the side helps), and relaxed for the short ride.

We were checked in by 7:00, upgraded to a large and pleasant room on the 10th floor, complete with sound-insulated views of the airport.

After a light appetizer in the restaurant, taking advantage of our $18 Hilton Diamond credit each, we checked out the hotel’s 12th floor rooftop terrace, having it to ourselves on a cool evening.

We may return later today, once the weather warms up - it’s actually a little chilly here today. In our earlier travel days, we would have flown our itinerary in one fell swoop, but we’re pampering ourselves these days. 

After this overnight stop, we’re leaving the hotel around 8:30 PM and shuttling back to the LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal. We already have our Fiji Airways boarding passes, but will stop at their counter to see if we require passes for lounge access. Maybe they’ll want to study Brian’s ETA.

Our nearly 11-hour flight to Nadi Fiji (LAX-NAN) is on an Airbus A350 in business class flatbed seats. We’ll be on the ground in Fiji for about three hours before flying FJ onward to Sydney (NAN-SYD) on another A350. This cost us only 55,000 Alaska points (miles) each, quite a bargain by current standards.

We’re overnighting at the Rydges Hotel where we’ve stayed before, a short walk across the street from SYD international arrivals, but we’ll leave that for another post 7,490 flight miles from here.

For now, we’ll enjoy some plane spotting from the H Hotel’s rooftop terrace. An Emirates flight…

Here’s a Qantas A380 landing almost in front of us.

And another Lufthansa A380 appears.

Fun to watch!