Saturday, February 28, 2009

Multimedia message

Kathy at the computer

Crossing The Big Pond Slowly and In Style

In ten days we sail from Miami to Barcelona on Regatta, our third Transatlantic cruise with Oceania cruises.

It’s a 15-day crossing that docks only in Funchal (Madeira), Portugal Day 10, Casablanca, Morocco Day 12, and Malaga, Spain Day 13 before ending in Barcelona Day 15. The ship’s itinerary can be found here.

A couple who stayed in the exact same stateroom as ours on a previous Regatta Transatlantic posted a bunch of great photos. Juergen and Betty do look just a bit serious, but they must have had a great time, or they wouldn’t have taken all of those terrific pictures, would they?

Transatlantics on Oceania remain one of the great bargains for a quality cruise experience, so - shhh - please don’t tell anybody about them.

Bud and Jessie, the Toronto couple we met at beginner bridge lessons on our most recent Oceania Transatlantic, are on the cruise as well, and we’re all set to start bridge all over again. We’ve also posted to the Cruise Critic Roll Call forum thread for this cruise, and we're looking forward to meeting those fellow cruisers on board.

Kathy's Necklace - Lost and Found - Danke schön Lufthansa

As we were “deplaning” (one of those great flight attendant words) a UA flight at Washington DC after our flight from Munich a few weeks ago, Kathy noticed a necklace that she’d been carrying in her pocket (kind of by accident) was missing.

Employees kindly let her back on the plane to search, but to no avail. A couple of weeks later she realized she might have dropped it in the Munich Lufthansa Senator Lounge we’d visited before the flight when she draped her jacket over a chair. I got in touch with the official LH “employee lurker,” LHrelate in FlyerTalk’s Lufthansa Miles and More forum for help.

Her colleague in Munich quickly determined the necklace hadn’t been turned in to them, but checked with the airport’s lost-and-found department. Bingo! A necklace matching our description had been turned in on the day of our flight, probably dropped at a security checkpoint.

Kathy called the phone number she sent us the next morning, successfully answered in German the “trick” questions posed, and made arrangements to pick up the necklace when we arrive at MUC in April. As Brian (Fredd) said in this FT thread, Danke schön to the honest person who turned in the necklace, to airport employees, and especially to the diligent Lufthansa employees who found the necklace for them – and we weren’t even flying Lufthansa!

FlyerTalk of course continues to be an invaluable resource to us and we strongly recommend it to anybody who travels, even if you don't lose things the way we do.

Friday, February 27, 2009

But Who's Keeping Score?

On our return trip HNL-SFO-SEA (Honolulu-San Francisco-Seattle) we both crossed the 50,000 mile mark for 2009 on United Airlines. The meaning of this is, no matter whether or not we fly for the remainder of 2009, we are already ensconced as Premier Executives on UA.

Aren't we something?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Honolulu Phở Find

Here we are back home in Birch Bay watching a skiff of snow settle on our hedge the day after flying back from Honolulu.

We are phở fans. Our first and last meals in Honolulu were at the Phở My Lien, a hole-in-the-wall (actually hole-on-the-second-floor) little joint in a nondescript, no, dumpy "shopping complex" on Ala Moana Boulevard facing a tattoo parlor, and a 30-second walk from the pedestrian entrance to the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

We ate phở there the night we arrived in Honolulu after checking in at the Hilton, ate more phở and some crispy spring rolls there a few days later, and branched out with more spring rolls and a couple of plates of "solid" food Monday afternoon. Our total bill for that "big" lunch, including a couple of bottles of Vietnamese 33 Beer (Germanic-style bitter), was $30! A variety of sauces sits on every table and the bean sprouts and cilantro (or were they Vietnamese mint leaves?) accompanying the phở were crisply fresh and tasty.

Reading reviews here and here makes us think our own assessment of this dingy and delicious Mom-and-Pop operation is accurate. As one reviewer mentioned, it took some nerve to walk up the stairs and enter the place the first time, but we'll be sure to return there on our next visit to Honolulu.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Chef's Counter at Alan Wong's - Part Two

Our main entree was the Black Pepper Crusted Maui Cattle Company Tenderloin, with Asian Black Pepper Jus, topped with Big Island Goat Cheese Mousse, and and a delicious Goat Cheese Potato Croquette. The steak was beautifully cooked and, not noted on the menu, sitting on a bed of twice-cooked short ribs.

In place of the dessert wine on the tasting menu to accompany those goodies on our two plates (pictured above and left), we chose another glass of the Turner's Crossing, "Alan Wong's" Cabernet Shiraz, Central Victoria, Australia, 2005. The other wines served were Champagne Deutz "Brut Classic" N.V. from France with the "Soup and Sandwich," Gunderloch, "Alan Wong's Cuvee" Riesling Kabinett, Rheinhessen, Germany, 2006 with the Foie Gras, Bourgogne Blanc, Lucien Le Moine,France, 2004, with the Steamed Moi, and, a surprise, a smooth sake, Yuki No Bosha, Junmai Ginjo, Akita, Japan, with the Butter Poached Lobster.

A special splurge and a wonderful dining and entertainment experience.

The Chef's Counter at Alan Wong's - Part One

We dined at Alan Wong's South King Street Restaurant in Honolulu Saturday night. We'd dined previously at the restaurant and this time we reserved the Chef's Counter, where six stools are situated right next to the open kitchen. One of the chefs, Steven, introduced himself and the others, including the Chef de Cuisine, Wade Ueoka. It was great fun watching them work, as we enjoyed our own seven-course Chef's Tasting.

We won't argue with those who claim it as Honolulu's best restaurant. Thanks to our server, Jonah, other wait-staff, and of course, the kitchen staff, we enjoyed a great evening.

Stephen (on the far right in the picture) and the rest of the staff cooked up a marvelous meal for us. Pictured above: Upper Left - Butter Poached Lobster & Crab "Tofu", Upper Right - Steamed Moi, Barber's Point Pacific Threadfin, Dried Scallop Risotto Flan, Lower Left - Kabayaki Unagi Foie Grass Pork Hash Terrine, Lower Right - "Soup and Sandwich" Chilled Vine-Ripened Hamakua Springs Tomato Soup with Grilled Mozzarella Cheese, Foie Gras, Kalua Pig Sandwich.

On The Beach at Waikiki

The Hilton Hawaiian Village offers a lot in the way of beach access and we enjoyed part of an afternoon hanging around the beach and the pool. Hint: The ocean is warmer.

Sunday morning Rocky the pregnant monk seal decided to rest on the beach on her way back to Diamond Head, so we were allowed to admire her from behind the ropes set up by the volunteers keeping an eye on this endangered species.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Lunch at Benihana of Tokyo - Honolulu

Sharp knives! A tasty low-carb lunch at the Benihana of Tokyo adjacent to the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Friday Night Fireworks

Seen from our room in the Hilton Hawaiian Village Rainbow Tower...

When a Hilton Room "Upgrade" really isn't

Guess which view cost $40 less...

We've enjoyed our first full day at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, especially after sorting out the room situation.

We had, foolishly in retrospect, applied for a "standby" paid upgrade. Hurray, we got the upgrade, but we ended up in the Ali'i Tower, an older building and our "garden view" room was mainly of a building across the way.

We spoke to the front desk and got ourselves "downgraded" to the Rainbow Tower today. Here we sit in a lovely room on the 23rd floor with a million-dollar view of Diamond Head, waiting for the Friday night fireworks later this evening. All that and $40 a night cheaper - what a deal!

We can again Mai Tai One On Flying UA to HNL

United Airlines took a lot of the fun out of flying First Class to Honolulu awhile back by cutting out the Trader Vic Mai Tais and sparkling wine aka champagne. Possibly in response to FlyerTalkers and other gripers, or who knows why, UA just reinstated the bubbly and the Mai Tai (not advertised as Trader Vics) and we enjoyed a couple on our flight to HNL yesterday.

The cute little appetizer formerly served didn't appear but the slightly exotic hot nut mix filled the void and the purser's industrial strength Mai Tais were chock full of nutritious fruit, so thank you Purser and thank you United!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Passport Renewal Time Already?

Could it really have been nearly ten years? Is that why the eyes of the border guard dart back and forth between Brian's face and his photo? Brian shuffles aimlessly while the official squints. Why is he smiling like that? Do I need a haircut? Oh, hair...

After an overnight return trip across the Canadian border (for which a passport isn't required yet), maybe there's time to squeeze in a renewal, especially when accompanied by the expedited renewal fee baksheesh.

Filling out the form online isn't difficult, after reading through all of the information. Yes, a couple of minor glitches surface but it saves the trouble and sloppiness of filling it out by hand.

Brian does have to fill it out a second time, just to confirm that the total fee for a mailed-in passport renewal application and expedited service is $135, otherwise a well-kept government secret on the site that appears and then disappears in the middle of the application process.

A quick photo session at an exclusive photo studio today and we'll see how speedy that expedited service will be. In the meantime, we're off on a quick trip to Oahu in a couple of days packing a driver's license.

Let the passport-delivery-countdown begin.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The World's Best Passenger Complaint Letter?

This letter, complete with photos of the offending dishes offered, has been circulating the Internet. It's written in the best tongue-in-cheek British style, and the writer achieves his results from unveiling his meal like a three-act play while addressing chatty and cheeky comments to "Richard." That would be Sir Richard Branson, the big boss of Virgin Airways, voted the "most admired brand" by the UK public, at least until this letter was published.

Is is the best passenger complaint lever ever? I doubt that, and it drifts a bit toward the end as the author feels the need to complain about the lousy video as well, but it's still a gem of its kind. A couple of my favorite excerpts as the writer painstakingly unveils each stage of his loathsome repasts, complete with photos:

Look at this Richard. Just look at it...

"I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert?
I was raised strictly but neatly by my parents and if they knew I had started desert before the main course, a sponge shaft would be the least of my worries. So lets peel back the tin-foil on the main dish and see what’s on offer.

I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat their with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about.

Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this...

It turns out the author is a 29-year-old ad agency employee who's had a hand in producing funny TV commercials. He's now been invited to the catering headquarters to be a food taster as the airline's PR department desperately tries to play catch-up. They tend to run cheeky ads themselves, so maybe they had this coming.

Worth a read if you enjoy British humor...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Home Sweet Home for a bit

Back at home after a couple of great flights MUC-IAD-SEA, a quick visit with three cute granddaughters, and a drive from Seattle to Birch Bay that turned out to be not snowy despite the weather predictions.

Enough little chores and catching up to keep us occupied before our quick trip to Honolulu next week... The hardest part is our self-imposed detox program of vegetable soup. Good as K's recipe is, it doesn't quite compare with, say, this... Aargh!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Auf Wiedersehen München

What with resting up and packing, we have to skip introducing Greg and June to the wonderful Deutsches Museum just a few blocks from our hotel - maybe next time.

We do walk down the street to enjoy a fine German meal at the Kuchelverzeichnis - cute website with tasty food pictures.

Greg, Kathy, and Brian walked a few miles, first over to the Munich Park Hilton, where we're staying in April, through a frigid English Garden, then into the pedestrian area in the center of the city, past the Rathaus and back to our own hotel.

A timely bit of exercise considering we'll be spending most of the following 24 hours in aluminum tubes.

A few hours in Naples

The trip from Positano to Napoli can be accomplished by a combination of bus and train, or, if you're willing to spend a few more Euros, by taxi.

We were fortunate to find Michele of Ravello taxi. He gave us a great rate and drove us safely from the Hotel Pasitea to the Museum of Archeology in Napoli, after stopping at the airport to store our luggage (six Euros a bag - ouch!).

We hired a guide at the front door to give us a 90-minute tour through the highlights of this huge museum. We only noticed later that Dr. Pina Esposito is recommended by Rick Steves. She gave us a great overview of some of the major sculptures and incredible mosaics in this building.

One of Brian's personal favorite moments was setting eyes on something he'd read about many years ago in Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels, the mosaic of a dog found at Pompeii, with the inscription Cave Canem - Beware of Dog.

The Secret Cabinet of erotic art reveals that sex was an obsession even before Hollywood invented it.

We then walked a couple of blocks over to Ristorante Bellini for our final meal in Italy. Not bad!

We navigated the subway as far as the Stazione Centrale but time was short so we grabbed a taxi. Just our luck to get the kind of driver warned about in the guidebooks. First he has the meter covered and says he'll drive us to the airport for "about" 20 Euros. When we call out "metro" and open the doors he pulls the newspaper off the meter with a lot of money already on it. More coaxing and he sets the meter to 0 and then spends the ride singing to us and saying repeatedly "Americans made of gold - Italians poor."

After what we suspect was a roundabout ride to the airport we stiffed him with about a one-euro tip (his English suddenly improved - "not enough for a cup of coffee!"), picked up our bags, and readied ourselves for our Lufthansa flight back to Munich.

Arrivederci Bella Italia, but good riddance to crooked Neopolitan taxi drivers.

Friday, February 6, 2009

La Famiglia at La Tagliata

Mama and Papa do the cooking, Sonny greets and seats the guests, and maybe it's Uncle Luigi who's doing the serving. Genuine hospitality and a great time!

Grand Finale Meal in Positano

It was actually a shuttle ride up to the top of the mountain, more than 300 meters above the ocean to La Taglia, a family-run trattoria.

We thought it might be just for tourists but there were a lot of locals there. The friendly family greets us, and we're immediately seated at a table. Out comes a jug of wine, followed by at least a dozen separate antipastis. We absolutely lost count of the number but it was quite a variety.

The primo piatti included four separate pastas, including "Mama's" special pasta. Next was a plate of grilled meats, followed by a plate of desserts. Oh yes, the jug of wine was refilled, as far as we can recall.

Quantity? Incredible! Quality? Pretty darned good. The cost? $100 US a couple, including generous tip to the restaurant and the shuttle driver.

We'll have great memories of this restaurant and this region as we waddle back to Naples to catch our flight to Munich and our final two nights of this trip.

Positano Views on Foot

More Views of the Amalfi Coast...

Costiera Amalfitana - Amalfi Coast Part One

Positano, where we're staying, was described by the artist Paul Klee as "the only place in the world designed on a vertical axis." We take the bus "interio" from our Hotel Pasitea down a series of switchbacks at a fairly terrifying speed before being deposited several hundred feet lower and nearer to the beach and our restaurant of choice, The Pergola Restaurant / Buca di Baco. That ride is just a warmup for the trip along the Amalfi Coast.

As the Michelin Green Guide says, "The corniche road follows the indentations of the rocky coast between Sorrento and Salerno which is Italy's finest coastline." Even that inadequately describes it. The bus rides are reminiscent of a carnival ride, with some of the most spectacular views imaginable. We could swear the bus was articulated as we went around the switchbacks, and we hope it's as strong as a tank as we roar around blind single-lane corners with the horn tooting a warning.

It's interesting that, among the construction cranes and heavy duty equipment, donkeys are still used to haul dirt up hills.

Dining in Ravello: Figli di Papà (Dad's kids?)

On our road trip (and what a road!)from Positano to Amalfi to Ravello, we enjoyed a lunch at the Figli di Papà that was fairly typical of meals we've been enjoying in this part of Italy. We shared a cold vegetable antipasti, then among us dined on cannelloni, spaghetti with clams, grilled swordfish, Italian sausage with mozzarella cheese, grilled between two large lemon leaves, sea bass al forno, and a lovely rocket and tomato salad. We discovered a full and round regional red wine, Falerno del Massico Primitivo MOIO.

Our very funny young waiter seemed to enjoy our company (it was quiet and many if not most of the restaurants and hotels here are closed for the season). As we were walking down the long stairs into the restaurant we asked him if it was open. He answered "Maybe" and he stayed as funny throughout, telling us the wine we wanted was all gone, then "maybe one bottle left." When I asked him if he could recommend a dessert, he scanned the menu, paused perfectly, and then said "No."

His "mama" was the cook and she was too shy to let us take her picture as we were leaving, but we thanked her for the fine meal. The waiter's girlfriend was sitting there and I asked her if he was a real Mama's Boy. She smiled and said yes - lots of good fun all around and another example of how the Italians know how to dine.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Signs of The Times: "Do not trust wily strangers."

In our Bangkok hotel room, the little sign sitting on top of the safe said, "In case of an unfortunate incident, the management will not be responsible."
Without even going to the extreme of Engrish, one can find many signs in English that get their message across, not as idiomatic but more cute than the writer intended. As for the Chinese restaurateur in Napoli describing the varieties of duke he offers, that just quacks us up.