A Private Jet Experience: Alone in F on NH +TG, SQ F, a Suite & Villa, and Incredible Food Porn

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  1. gleff
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    Prologue: The decision-making and booking process

    I’m just back from South Asia, where my wife and I had a nice pretty par for the course first class redemption. But there were some high points, and some lessons in award redemption that I hope to be able to share. Some things I’d do again, some things I’d do differently, so it seemed worth writing up a trip report and hopefully it’ll be worth reading and even helpful to a few folks.

    I started out looking for first class transpacific award seats on Star Alliance, planning for a trip that was a little bit less than two weeks. The plan was a getaway towards the end of the cold winter season, maybe miss the final snow (we lucked out and did!) and to come back as DC was warming up (worked out perfectly).

    I scanned first class award space on All Nippon and on Asiana, looking for dates that would match up. And I found two first class seats Chicago – Tokyo on ANA, and two first class seats for the return Tokyo – Washington Dulles. Now that’s something to plan the rest of an itinerary around!

    I played around and found that Thai was offering just onefirst class award seat most days on Bangkok – Tokyo, both flights with first class, the Jet Airways 777 in the morning and the redeye 747. I decided to grab one for my wife, put myself in business on the assumption that I’d upgrade later. It seemed like additional first class inventory was opening up 17-18 days in advance, and I had several months to watch, I couldn’t imagine I wouldn’t wind up up front. I wound up sweating it out a lot more than I’d expected, which is a whole ‘nother story for later in the report.

    Hadn’t really decided what else to do at this point, but I gave a call to US Airways. I’ve got way too many Dividend Miles from various promos like the 2009 holiday shopping Big Bonus and Track-it-back, might as well burn some of those. I put on hold IAD-ORD-NRT/BKK-NRT-IAD and they held it at 120,000 miles apiece, the US – North Asia price rather than the ‘correct’ 160,000 price for South Asia given that the return was from Bangkok.

    I chose the Washington Dulles – Chicago flight on United because it was scheduled as an international 767, that seemed worth the trek out to Dulles for even though I live near National. One seat was available in first class, gave that to my wife, and one in coach which I took just like the Bangkok – Tokyo Thai flight.

    Since the thing priced at 120,000 miles I decided not to press my luck and add anything from Tokyo to South Asia. I just ticketed it as-is, and went about piecing together the rest of the itinerary. Using Singapore miles I grabbed two first class one-way award seats Tokyo – Singapore on Singapore, to line up with our Tokyo arrival. Sweet, now I had ANA first and Singapore first. I didn’t have that many Singapore miles in my account, this was a great opportunity to burn them. Booking online I got the 15% discount, which I needed. I didn’t have enough for the two tickets without the online discount, which meant that I couldn’t book Singapore as a stopover and Bangkok as the destination, I would have needed to call to do that. So I closed out the award with a one-way cash and points award with bmi miles, Singapore – Bangkok in business class on Thai. That was just 7500 bmi miles apiece.

    Then I went about picking hotels. I had booked DC – Chicago with an overnight in Chicago rather than taking a 6am flight out of DC to connect to our international flight because I figured that the middle of February could present real weather challenges, I wanted to position myself early especially flying on a US Airways award. I held off booking a hotel for the Chicago overnight hoping to see a Hyatt promo. After all, I neededa one-night stay, probably an airport stay, which would have made Hyatt just perfect if they brought back Faster Free Nights. They didn’t, and I wound up booking an $87 rate at the Intercontinental O’Hare and I’m glad I did, the best airport hotel I’ve ever stayed in.

    For Singapore I contacted the hotel to ask about their Royal Ambassador treatment and decided to book a Shophouse Suite which they promised would be upgraded to an Ambassador Suite.

    And for Thailand we decided against flying anywhere, and booked the Sheraton Hua Hin since it’s drivable from Bangkok. Shortly after booking, though, the hotel let me know that they’d be hosting a wedding that would take up almost the entire hotel during the bulk of our stay and that we might not enjoy ourselves. I actually appreciated knowing that, I wouldn’t have wanted to travel all that way and find the place noisy and overrun. So I posted on Flyertalk asking for advice about what other property to consider. On the whole reaction there was really strong, feeling that the hotel was out of line in saying they couldn’t meet their own minimum standards and that they probably just wanted my room back to give to the wedding party. I hadn’t asked for anything, but the hotel proactively reached out to me (having seen the discussion thread) and offered to make sure that I had a stay somewhere that met my goals and expectations for the trip. The Intercontinental Hua Hin was sold out of their better room categories during my planned dates, and the Hyatt is an older property, I ultimately agreed to fly to Phuket and they arranged to confirm in advance a Sala Pool Villa at the new Westin Siray Bay. Sounded great, I’d check out a new property and the room was a standalone structure with its own pool overlooking the bay, I figured how could I go wrong?

    Now that we were flying to Phuket I rang up bmi to change the one-way Singapore – Bangkok award to Singapore – Bangkok – Phuket. And then I’d just need to buy the Phuket – Bangkok segment.

    Shortly after ticketing the US Airways award, a seat opened in business class for Dulles – Chicago and I rang Dividend Miles and had them upgrade me. So now I was just looking for a first class award seat on that segment and on Bangkok – Tokyo.

    But the trip was basically all set…
     
  2. gleff
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    United First Class, Washington Dulles - Chicago

    I kept checking for a first class award seat on Washington Dulles – Chicago, my seat was booked in business and my wife was in first. It’s a short segment and doesn’t much matter, but why not try to upgrade to the international first class cabin on a 767? Unfortunately not only did another first class award not pop up, but the aircraft was downgraded. To an Airbus. Now we were together in the same cabin, at least. Though the whole reason for heading out to Dulles was blown to bits. I really do despise Dulles and will avoid it whenever possible. But on a US Airways award ticket, and without US Airways status, I decided against paying a change fee ($150 times 2) to grab a flight out of National instead.

    We arrived at Dulles to find out flight oversold, looking for volunteers. What was once supposed to be a 767, downgraded to an Airbus A320, was now an A319. We had the whole afternoon, we were flying out the day before leaving the country because I didn’t want anything to get in the way of starting our trip but the weather turned out to be fine. A perfect day for a bump! And yet we decided to just fly, and took a pass on the denied boarding compensation.

    Boarding was on time, the flight was naturally unremarkable except for the ways in which it lagged behind even the usual United domestic first class experience.
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    No pre-departure beverages. No assistance with coats. The flight was just a ‘light snack’ aka snack basket service, we got one pass of drinks and nothing more.
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    When we landed, passengers in row 1 pushed their way back past me to get their own coats, which they had hung themselves and hadn’t been returned to them prior to landing.

    It was just a short hop to Chicago, but being gone for more than a week and a half we had checked bags. Headed down to baggage claim and I was confused at first, our flight wasn’t on the board with the baggage claim belts listed. It took a moment to realize that the flights were frozen in time from six days prior.
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    We collected our bags and went over to the hotel shuttle center at O’Hare, a real schlep. I had considered just booking the Hilton, it’s attached to the airport after all, but I couldn’t resist an $87 rate at the Intercontinental which I’d wanted to try for awhile. It certainly didn’t disappoint.
     
  3. gleff
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    Intercontinental O'Hare: The Greatest Airport Hotel Ever?

    It began with the shuttle ride over. The Intercontinental must have the nicest hotel shuttle van I’ve ever been in, leather seats with that new car smell. All black, there’s a place for a bar setup (though the bar wasn’t set). The seats are actually comfortable for the short trip over to the hotel.


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    Walking in, I was immediately struck by the modern lobby with bright colors and high ceilings. It felt more like a Grand Hyatt in Asia than an O’Hare airport hotel.


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  4. gleff
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    The hotel has its own art gallery, and art is prominently featured throughout the hotel — from the lobby to murals on the wall by the elevators of the guest floors.

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    Checking in I was told we had been upgraded to a suite. The clerk checking us in wondered why we had been pre-assigned one without a view, so he tore up the assignment and found a room with a view out towards the city and directly in the landing path for O’Hare.

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    It was incredible to watch planes line up, more than a dozen deep in two rows, for arrival into the airport.

    I was told I’d receive complimentary internet as a Royal Ambassador. The hotel has no club lounge, I’ve seen references to complimentary breakfast by other travelers but nothing was mentioned. So I asked. And the response I got was interesting, “Sure, we can do that. It’s not really a benefit but I’d be happy to do anything for you that you would like. I’ll deliver certificates to your room shortly.” And they did, not just breakfast coupons but also for free drinks that evening in the bar.

    The room was beautiful and modern, a spacious living room with L-shaped couch and a separate bedroom, a half bath in the entryway and a giant master bathroom.
    The living room, bedroom, and guest bath:

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  5. gleff
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    • [​IMG]

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    Here’s the master bath:

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  6. gleff
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    • [​IMG]
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    The Royal Ambassador amenity:

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    And the minibar, which I only flag of course because its liquid contents are of course free for Royal Ambassadors:

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    The hotel’s business center has a live departures board above their checkin computers. Those worked great, except that I separately checked in for my Singapore Airlines flight and Singapore produces boarding passes as .pdf files. I had to check-in again on my laptop, save the .pdf to a thumb drive, and then print it out on one of the business center computers — fortunately they provide 15 minutes of free computer time in the business center as well.
     
  7. gleff
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    • [​IMG]
    The hotel’s gym was nice enough, too, no complaints.

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    On either side of the property are a Capital Grille and a McCormick & Schmick’s. I still had some McCormick & Schmick discount cards that I’ve picked up in airline lounges, unfortunately they expired two days before our visit. We had a nice dinner and spent the evening at the hotel, went to bed early after a series of very hectic weeks.

    It was just a relaxing stay. My wife even commented that we could “just stay here for 12 days and that could be our vacation!” And at $87 a night, with free breakfast and cocktails and internet and minibar, I could almost have seen us doing just that. Almost. If we didn’t have much better lying ahead of us.

    We enjoyed a light breakfast in the morning, not wanting to overeat before beginning our journey

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    And then we took the hotel shuttle over to the airport, getting on our way to Asia.
     
  8. milchap
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    Great read. Thanks
     
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  9. moa999
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    Very nice. IC looks brilliant
     
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  10. Flyer
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    1.) Love that IC. 2.) You should have eaten at Capital Grille. (Or did I misunderstand you?)
     
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  11. Kelsey
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    This is really great thus far! Looking forward to the rest of the trip.
     
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  12. gleff
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    I much like the Capital Grille in DC, I just wasn't up for a steak. I did eat at McCormick & Schmick and it was really not very good. There wasn't anything memorable abou the meal except that the tuna appetizer had way too much horse radish and mustard mixed in and you could barely taste the fish. In hindsight, and because I really wasn't up for steak, I should have given room service a try so I could report on it here! ;)
     
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  13. eightblack
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    Is it just me or am I the only one having trouble seeing any images above "the Royal Ambassador Amenity" on both this site and the blog. I really want to take in the whole trip report. Sounds great.
     
  14. gleff
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    If anyone else is having a really hard time with the photos I'd appreciate knowing?
     
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  15. thetenken
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    I can see them just fine.
     
  16. Bonnie
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    I can see them just fine too! In fact, these pictures make me 'almost' not mind a potential layover at O'Hare one day!
     
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  17. mht_flyer
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    Great report, thanks for posting. The Intercon looks spectacular.
     
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  18. gba
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    Great report Gary, thanks for posting, I look forward to reading the rest!
     
  19. gleff
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    Alone in First Class on ANA, Chicago - Tokyo

    The Intercontinental’s shuttle dropped us off at check-in for ANA and Lufthansa.
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    We quickly walked up to the red carpet, first class and Star Gold checkin. Bags were tagged all the way to Singapore, even though we were on separate tickets for the Tokyo – Singapore segment. It took the agents a little while to figure out how to do it, the biggest challenge being my explaining to them that the Chicago – Tokyo flight arrived the next day and so they needed to enter the Singapore – Tokyo flight for that day. They kept entering a same day departure and getting a response that the flight was already closed.

    Once that was handled we walked through premium security, there was virtually no line, and the nude-o-scopes were even turned off. We went quickly down through the ORD tunnel to the C concourse, the first class lounge is behind the customer service counter near gate C18.

    The lounge is peaceful enough, we had no problem finding seating, but it isn’t special in any way. It’s just a bit quieter than the Red Carpet Club next door.
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    There’s better food and drink, of course, though I wouldn’t call the food selection especially good or impressive.
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    Still, this is United and even though this is the international first class lounge for their main hub, a lounge shared by international premium carriers like ANA (which we’d be flying, though admittedy ANA isn’t really known for its ground experience) and Lufthansa, the lounge was fine for our short time there. We didn’t get ourselves to the airport with the intention of spending time there, and that worked out perfectly.
     
  20. gleff
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    Though I suppose it was five o’clock somewhere, I didn’t partake in the bar selection, which was self-service and well stocked.
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    Cloudy Bay is a decent enough Sauvignon Blanc though since it struck me as the best bottle available that hardly impressed.

    Soon enough it was time to board and we walked over to the ANA gate, boarding already mostly complete, and found our way to the first class cabin. A couple of days earlier I had checked the inventory buckets and seat map and it appeared we were the only ones in the cabin. That was re-confirmed at check-in, though I did wonder whether there was some chance of an upgrade of someone in business. When we boarded the plane I asked and was told that indeed we would be the only ones in first class that day!

    Seating on the ANA 777 is 1-2-1 in first class, and we had pre-reserved the two seats together in the middle in row 1. We were invited to take any seats we liked, or to start at a window seat and move later if we wanted the view as we took off. We just took our originally assigned seats which suited us just fine. It was going to be a good flight.
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    The seat itself was really remarkable when it was first introduced in 2002. It was 2006 before it finally rolled out completely across all routes, I still remember taking an old “SuperStyle” first class flight in April 2006 from Washington Dulles to Tokyo, and then seeing on the return that the NewStyle seats were operating every other day for the route — and I just missed it.

    Now the seats are a bit dated, though in perfect condition. They’re just not as wide as I’d like, and there’s really no storage, but otherwise I still find them excellent.
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  21. gleff
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    • [​IMG]
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    There are many things I find a bit odd about ANA, that’s important to understand it’s how they do things and not a reflection on service. There are no pre-departure beverages per Japanese regulation. But there was still plenty of activity with us before we took off, in addition to the flight attendant duties of lightly tapping each overhead bin in a rather comical routine, I don’t think they’d be able to tell if each one is actually closed and latched with as lightly as they make contact. But it’s a well-rehearsed routine.

    Service began with our amenity bag. I don’t like the blue drawstring bags as much as I used to like the zipper pouch bags, I still use those for a variety of purposes like carrying toiletries and medicines and power adapters. ANA gives you a bag and has a basket of amenities, you take what you wish from the basket. On my previous ANA first class flight and on this one, shortly after takeoff the amenity basket was left in front of the television of a vacant seat so that you could take more items if you wished. I stocked up on the lip balm mostly, and a couple of water mist spray bottles. The lotion has been downgraded to a single use tube and I didn’t take any of them. I did grab a couple of scents, though, I especially like the lavender card.

    Menus were distributed and ANA really does still have the most extensive menu in the sky, and I’d argue the best food.
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    There have been some noticeable cutbacks compared to two and certainly four years ago, but they’re still legions ahead of anyone else that I’ve flown. It’s a true mix-and-match dining on demand whenever you’d like, whatever you’d like, and they have tons of options. I always go with the Japanese meal on ANA, even departing the US it is very good though it’s usually considered better departing Tokyo. The Western dishes look excellent but I figure that I don’t often get such an extensive Japanese meal as with ANA so I might as well take advantage of the opportunity. There are full Japanese and Western multi-course affairs, and several different snack menus as well as a final pre-arrival meal. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten the pre-arrival meal as-described, I’ve always just mixed-and-matched whatever snacks and dishes suited my fancy instead.

    Hot towels, naturally, before and after each service.
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    And my pre-meal snack…

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  22. gleff
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    .. was greeted by a glass of Krug.
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    I began with the caviar from the Western menu
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    And I do have to say that ANA does a nice job with their caviar presentation. They’re the only airline that I can think of (though I may be wrong) that provides a separate utensil for the caviar. Now, it doesn’t make as much difference as is usually imagined, but it’s still a nice tough that they provide a (plastic, not mother-of-pearl) caviar spoon. The portions aren’t huge, a la Lufthansa, but they’re artfully presented.
    I also tried the foie gras mousse with roast duck from the Western menu before switching to the Japanese.
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    The Japanese menu, copied from the website, was as follows: (Note that one of the things I do like about ANA is that they publish the menu for each first class flight on their website for the current and following month, makes trip reports easier!)

    KAPPO
    o Langoustine with tartare sauce Marinated octopus with Japanese green horseradish sauce Trio of Japanese delicacies
    o Crabmeat fishcake
    o Assorted of salmon, squid and hen clam
    o Simmered chicken meat ball and vegetables in light soy sauce
    o Smoked duck breast with sesame flavored sauce
    o Cod and Chinese cabbage roulade​
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  23. gleff
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    • [​IMG]
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    After this feast I was too full to have dessert, much to the disappointment of our flight attendants. I went into the restroom to change into my pajamas.

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    The pajamas have changed to a blue rather than prison grey, they’re quite substantial and I like them though one of the oddities about ANA is that they aren’t yours to keep. Flight attendants will collect them when you change back into your clothes, they’ll be washed and packaged for re-use. I have no problem with wearing them, they were completely clean, but it could be a bit of a surprise if you’ve flown first class on other carriers and become accustomed to taking home the PJs (and even wearing them on long haul flights on other carriers that don’t provide pajamas, cough, United, cough).

    And as I left the restroom one of the flight attendants was standing there waiting to hang my clothes. I returned to my seat to find my bed already made. That’s one of the true joys of first class flying, not even having to ask.
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  24. gleff
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    • [​IMG]
    Though I declined dessert, there were petit fours waiting for me to nibble on as I relaxed.
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    My wife did have some dessert and a cappuccino to accompany it, and since we were flying on Valentine’s Day they adorned it ever-so-appropriately.
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    I adjusted the seat slightly into relaxation mode and started watching some DVDs I had burned to my laptop. This flight I’d be watching some of the sixth season of The Shield. After a few episodes I decided to have a nap, I really hadn’t slept all that much the night before, and a couple of hours of sleep were more than comfortable.
     
  25. gleff
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    Midflight I had the bar snacks, or sake accompaniments:

    o Caramelized freshwater willow minnow in sweet soy sauce​
    o Deep-fried fishcakes​
    o Lotus root dumpling with rich soy based sauce​
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    Followed by the ice cream (I finally had my dessert!)

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    While my wife had the opera cake.

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    Later in the flight my wife decided to really take advantage of the fact that we were completely alone in the cabin. No, not like that! Get your mind out of the gutter! She placed a blanket of the ground in the cabin and spent 45 minutes or an hour on her Yoga practice. Now that’s relaxation, in private jet style, even on a commercial flight! She got a couple of smiles from the flight attendants, one who talked to her afterwards about her own Yoga practice.

    I talked with one of our other flight attendants about our planned time in Singapore, she was so disappointed we weren’t staying in Japan on this trip (especially because ANA flight attendants always seem genuinely impressed when Westerners take the full Japanese meal and seem to enjoy it). But she said her best friend lives in Singapore, and that they visit often. She proceeded to write out three pages of restaurant recommendations along with the usual tourist advice like the zoo and night safari. It was a genuinely appreciated touch, going out of her way to share her thoughts with us.

    Watched some more of The Shield, napped a bit, and got myself up about an hour before arrival for one last shot at something to eat. I mixed and matched from the light dishes snack menu and the post-nap meal for my pre-arrival snack,

    Traditional onion soup with cheese toast
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    Braised beef and eggs noodles with red wine sauce

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    I had these along with another cappuccino and an orange juice. This time there was no heart in the foam, perhaps because we had crossed the international date line and it was no longer Valentine’s Day.
     

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