Monday, August 31, 2009

A Street Festival and Les Miserables

We ventured out this morning to attend a Caribbean folk festival held in the vicinity of Notting Hill. Not exactly a mistake but we were ovewhelmed by the crowds and were only to happy to leave. However, that took some walking.

Our first clue was reading that it was Europe's largest street festival. That covers a lot of ground. Our second clue was the experience of being disgorged from the underground stop with what felt like thousands of other people. Our third clue was the literally hundreds of police officers we saw throughout.

Many blocks of streets were closed off and stalls with jerk chicken, beer, and wine lined a lot of the streets. There was recorded music at intervals, all of it breathtakingly loud. A lot of happy people wandered around, many of them swigging beer or other varieties of booze.

We then realized that the area underground stations were closed so we ended up hiking a couple of miles past a parade or two to finally get to one.

We'd stopped first at Leicester Square to pick up discount tickets to London's longest running musical, Les Miserables, and we're looking forward to attending it at the Queen's Theatre in a couple of hours.

We stopped off at the Victoria and Albert Museum, our first visit there. So many wonderful museums in London and so little time.

We're hanging out in the Hilton Lounge for an hour to enjoy afternoon tea in the meantime. Nothing like roughing it on the road...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

When the flight is too short

What kind of silly complaint is that?

It's actually more of an observation. Yesterday we first flew SEA (Seattle) to ORD (Chicago O'Hare) where we had a leisurely layover.

We then boarded a UA 767 for the flight to LHR (London Heathrow), leaving at 6:00 p.m. or so Central time (4:00 p.m. PDT). What with a strong tailwind, we landed only a little over seven hours later, around 7:30 a.m. local time. That left us with only a couple of hours to catch a nap after dinner. We've arrived in Australia feeling more rested after a much longer flight. Still, it was a pleasant flight, with the largely British cabin crew as pleasant and hospitable as we'd heard they were.

We were among the very first in the Immigration line for non-EU passport-holders. That was a lucky break, since around 8:00 a.m. local time there was only one officer on duty - amazing!

After waiting in a queue to buy an Oyster card for the underground, we hopped on a tube and arrived in Canary Wharf about an hour later after one transfer.

We're staying at the Hilton Canary Wharf and it's a lovely hotel in a revitalized area that could be Melbourne or Minneapolis or any one of a number of other places. It was the scene of the London docks where a lot of shipments came in. The rise of container cargo made it obsolescent. The hotel staff have been very accommodating, to coin a phrase, and fixed us up with a room as soon as they could. We broke one of our rules and took a short nap - the trick is not to sleep too long or you'll never get asleep that night - and awoke feeling revitalized.

We strolled around the area and found a Marks & Spenser store in a complex across the footbridge where we could buy some water with minimal sodium content. What's with this mineral water everybody wants to drink?

Now we're mooching off the free computers in the Executive Lounge and it's time to give others a turn.

It's great to be back in London only a couple of months after our last visit and we're looking forward to seeing more of it tomorrow.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Packing it in

That title is deliberately evocative of something gloomy. Packing has a depressing aspect to it in that even fairly experienced travelers like us can, checklist in hand, still miss out on something.

Some folks are impressed that we almost always travel with carry-on only, while others are surprised we fill up two rollaboards rather than one little backpack.

We're just about to leave for 20 or so days, starting with an overnight at the Seattle Airport, followed by a Transaatlantic cruise, followed by a couple of days in Boston before flying home. How do we pack?

We've developed a two-page checklist that we read before we finalize anything. A few months ago while staying in Schliersee Germany we found a remarkably similar list that somebody had lost in the lobby. We too have developed the habit of forgetting lists of things not to forget - we're at that point in life and might as well chuckle about it.

We check the temperature trends of the places we're visiting - long-sleeve or short-sleeve weather? - and try to judge the number of shirts, etc. that we'll need fairly ruthlessly. When we're down to the point of worrying about which is the least dirty shirt to wear toward the end of a two-week trip, we know we've packed fairly efficiently.

Kathy's become quite expert at packing. The second pair of shoes goes at the bottom of the suitcase, stuffed with socks and underwear. Pants are laid in carefully and folded over on themselves. Shirts are folded and stuffed in.

Brian will wear his blue blazer, as formal a jacket as he intends on taking aboard the Jewel of The Seas, following research on Cruise Critic.

We've also noted that the Jewel does not have a self-service laundry, and travel irons are strictly forbidden. Thank goodness for Permanent Press and Kathy's packing skills.

Kathy has a few more secrets but the main secret is to make the following choice: Dress to travel or travel to dress. The rest is easy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Our Favorite Cruise Line?

In our pre-retirement days we found a bargain for our three youngsters on the Rhine River with the KD Line. We also sailed the Alaska Inside Passage on Princess. Since retirement we've cruised well over a hundred bargain-type days on Holland America, Celebrity, Carnival, Cunard (the Queen Mary II) and Oceania, sometimes with family members and sometimes by ourselves. Believe it or not, that doesn't make us serious cruisers compared to some folks. Despite our being non-experts, we sometimes get asked, "What's your favorite cruise line?"

People develop their own favorites, just as they do with airlines, hotels, restaurants, pickup trucks, and a lot of other commodities. We choose our preferred airline (United) and hotel chain (Hilton) for their overall prices, their frequent-traveler program, and their availability in the places we want to travel, not solely for their quality. We apply the same to cruising.

For the two of us right now our cruise line of choice is Oceania. We've completed six cruises on them in the past three years (mainly the bargain Transatlantic cruises). Their ships are small, their cuisine is outstanding, and the atmosphere is casual without being slobbish. On Oceania we've met many great fellow cruisers, and particularly on the Transatlantic trips you get to mingle with fellow passengers and crew at the daily activities - team trivia, shuffleboard, golf, and bridge lessons. If you buy far enough in advance the prices are affordable. Oh, and once you've completed five cruises they do offer some pleasing tangible goodies.

The most recent Travel Holiday survey results place Oceania up at Number Three in the "large ship" category, just below Crystal and Regent. That's a good result for an outfit that currently has only three identical 684-passenger ships. Furthermore, if you compare the prices on Oceania with those of six-star Regent, Oceania looks like a real bargain. People who've sailed on both tell us that Oceania stacks up pretty well. Finally, lumping in lines such as Oceania on a "large ship" list with some of the others overlooks its "small ship" atmosphere.

On the other hand, when the day comes that we take grandkids on a cruise, it definitely would not be on Oceania, which has no children's program. We hear from three of our grandkids and their parents that Disney is the greatest for kids, but that's a line we haven't yet experienced. On that same survey, RCCL sneaked in at Number 10. Still, we're readying ourselves for this cruise with open minds.

Just in case the food in the main diving room is as mediocre as some claim (in Cruise Critic forums for example), we've already made a bunch of advance dinner reservations at the specialty restaurants. But heck, we even enjoy sailing B.C. Ferries and we know we'll have a great time on the Jewel of The Seas.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Upcoming Transatlantic on Jewel of The Sea

We've been invited to hang out with Riley in Alabama to await the birth of her younger brother around Thanksgiving. We can't turn that down so we traded our November Oceania Transatlantic cruise for another cruise at a more convenient time.

We don't leave for a couple of weeks so we're just starting to think about the details of our first cruise on Royal Caribbean, a Transatlantic crossing on the Jewel of The Seas.

August 29 at 8:25 a.m. we fly SEA-ORD on UA #958, connecting to ORD-LHR UA #928, arriving at 8:25 a.m. August 30. From there we'll make our way to Harwich, in time to set sail September 2 at 5:00 p.m.

Ports along the way include Le Havre (Paris) and Cherbourg France, Cork Ireland and Belfast Northern Island, Reykjavik Iceland, and our destination port, Boston Massachusetts early September 14.

We've already seen the Jewel in the distance, most recently on our recent Baltic cruise, and we're surprised that a ship featuring its own rock-climbing wall holds "only" 2500 passengers. We'll be sure to carry a map with us for the first few days.

Since we managed to find our way around the magnificent Queen Mary II a few years ago we're not too worried. Besides, on a cruise ship you may get lost but you'll never starve.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Las Vegas Monorail

As infrequent visitors to Las Vegas, we've now taken our first rides on the Las Vegas Monorail and are impressed. It was built by Bombardier Transportation, starting from a free monorail running between the MGM Grand and Bally's, It opened in 2004 and it's one of the largest non-government public transportation systems in existence. Between riders and corporate sponsors, it's apparently making a profit, not surprising since it's located in an ideal location for 24-hour riders without any single peak period.

There are seven stops on the system, with plans afoot to extend it to the airport at some future point (2012?).

We were leaving our Hilton cocoon to see Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo. We watched his show on a previous visit and enjoyed it so much we decided to return. He really is a Master Magician. Indeed! Before his show starts, we get to watch a video of his escape from the chains holding him to the rails of the world's largest roller coaster. Wow!

Back to the Monorail... We bought a day pass for $13 each and rode over in the morning for some sightseeing, getting off at the MGM stop, the end of the line.

We walked through the MGM, across an elevated pedestrian walkway to New York New York, doing some gawking along the way. We walked through NYNY, out the other side, and strolled about one block in the heat before entering the Monte Carlo.


Late in the afternoon we returned for the actual show, dropping a few bucks at each of the casinos along the way.

Needless to say, the air conditioning in the monorail cars is a great feature too.

Las Vegas Hilton - A Touch of Old Las Vegas

Yes, you can expect any hotel featuring a 279 ft (85.04 m) sign, the largest freestanding sign in the world, will be larger than the average Holiday Inn Express. The Las Vegas Hilton has, from time to time, been the largest hotel in the world housing the largest casino.

It has many claims to fame, but one of the most enduring is as Elvis's venue, where he performed sold-out shows between 1969 and 1976. Is it a sign of aging baby boomers that the big-name headliner is now Barry Manilow? A statue of Elvis is located tastefully adjacent to the lobby entrance. When we stopped by, a few flowers and a card from the Elvis Fan Club had been placed at the base.


We had a perfectly fine room on the 15th floor in the East Tower. It's a healthy walk from there to the lobby, not surprising in a hotel with over 3000 rooms. This view is looking from the area of the East Tower elevators toward the lobby, restaurants, and casino. It's down there somewhere.

A bonus for Hilton Diamond and Gold members is daily VIP complimentary access to the full buffet breakfast. Between that and the $40 room charge we would have made money on the deal if it weren't for those darned slot machines.

The Las Vegas Hilton also has its own Monorail stop, giving us a handy and cost-effective option to get from one part of the Strip to another.

And now we can say we've stayed in the world's largest Hilton Hotel.

BLI - Friendly Flying out of Bellingham WA

Our early August flight to Las Vegas marked the first time Kathy and Brian have flown out of BLI (Bellingham International Airport) together. Surprising for two frequent flyers based in Birch Bay?

The explanation is simple. Our airline of choice for collecting miles is United. United stopped flying out of BLI years ago. The major carrier using this small and friendly terminal is Alaska / Horizon, although they're currently facing some stiff competition from Allegiant, leading to the $200 non-stop flight to LAS that we snagged.

BLI is housed in a modern Northwest-style building.

The employees are friendly and the atmosphere is relaxed throughout.

Once through security we walk outside a few feet and into a fairly new "waiting-room" annex. We received a text message from Alaska advising us of a gate change for our flight - Gate One to Gate Two. It turned out not to be a big deal!

It provides a great view of the final approach of our incoming flight. From the ground, even a 737 looks kinda big.


Once up in the air, a clear day affords us a fine view of Mt. St. Helens.

Parking was free years ago, but even $9 is a bargain compared to Seattle (SEA) or Vancouver (YVR). For us the 20-minute drive home from the airport is quite a bonus, but the Victoria couple we spoke to who claimed a thousand-dollar saving over flying out of Canada were probably happy enough to take the ferry home.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Going to Vegas to Cool Off

We're flying to Las Vegas strictly to escape the heat wave here. Yes, it's cooled off in beautiful Birch Bay Village but we've suffered through a number of record-breaking hot days.

July 29, for example, the official high for Blaine was 100 degrees. Las Vegas was only six degrees warmer with lower humidity.

Here, we've been running a decrepit old room air conditioner into the kitchen and moving fans from one room to another as the day progresses to try for any relief we can get. In Las Vegas we'll stay in air-conditioned comfort at the Hilton for $40 a night.

Anyway, that's our story and we're sticking to it.