ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Traveling From -23°F to +27°C in Style

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by Denali Flyer, Mar 24, 2011.  |  Print Topic

  1. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    The month of March is a great time to be in Alaska’s Interior, especially for those of us who live here. The short bitter cold days of Alaska’s long winter season are by March well on their way toward becoming the long, warm days of summer. The sun that is in such famously short supply during the winter months is now returning at the rate of seven additional minutes each day. That’s almost an hour of additional sunlight gained every week! The additional sunshine and the higher trajectory of the sun combine to create increasingly warmer temperatures and by the end of the month the snow is starting to melt quite rapidly, creating slushy, muddy roads and localized flooding. As a result, April is not my favorite month in the Interior.

    So why would I leave the excitement and anticipation of spring in March instead of departing during the sloppy, muddy days of April? Two reasons, really. First and foremost, I reckon I’m just ready to go somewhere NOW. Although I thoroughly enjoy winter in Alaska, I’m a guy who likes to travel and for the most part I haven’t done any real travel since last fall. Secondly, I don’t do short trips. Unlike most of you who have real jobs most of the year, I have an unreal job that lasts just five months per year. During the winter I fill in with odd jobs here and there but the bottom line is that this isn’t a vacation. The way I see it, I’m just taking my life out on the road for awhile. My primary job in Denali National Park starts up in early May, so if I were to wait until April to leave, I’d have just one month to travel. While I realize that for most people that amount of time would be more than sufficient, for me it’s not.

    Any of you who’ve read my past trip reports know that during the spring I’m usually out and about for a good two months. This trip won’t be any different. I don’t return to Alaska until April 28th. Between now and then I’ll have flown 74590 miles, ridden over 3000 miles of rail and driven over 3000 miles around the Desert Southwest and Florida. I’ll also find time to enjoy four days of really good music while camped out along the Suwannee River in northern Florida. Mileage running will account for slightly less than half of the total air mileage. All of the train travel will be in First Class. All of the driving will be done in full sized automobiles, preferably Dodge Chargers or Chrysler 300s. This is gonna be fun!

    This particular trip report will cover my journey from Fairbanks, Alaska (where the temperature got down to -23°F on the night before I left) to Cape Town, South Africa (where the temperature topped out at 27°C during my brief stay). It will involve First Class air travel between Fairbanks, Alaska and Johannesburg, South Africa aboard Alaska Airlines and Cathay Pacific, followed by First Class rail travel aboard Shosholoza Meyl’s Premiere Class train between Johannesburg and Cape Town.

    Now I realize that these days photo reports have become the most popular format for trip reports, and while that’s all well and good, I prefer to actually write my trip reports. In this way I feel I can better describe and bring to life the pleasures of International First Class air and rail travel as I experience them. When it comes to trip reporting, my intent is not so much to entertain you with my story as it is to bring you along for the ride, and writing accomplishes that better for me than a simple collection of photos.

    For some of our more well traveled brethren, my style of writing results in a report that is more detailed than they would like, especially about the onboard experience, the details of which are by now mind numbingly mundane to them. I understand but I also make no apologies. My trip reports are directed toward those for whom a flight in First Class is still a special treat to be anticipated and celebrated, not simply expected. Any stiffs out there who just want the basics should go find themselves a copy of Business Traveller Magazine and check out the Tried & Tested reports.

    As for the rest of youse, go find yourselves a comfy chair, a favorite drink and perhaps a small plate of something tasty to snack on. This trip report is poised at the head of the runway and cleared for takeoff.
     
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  2. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    March 08, 2011
    Fairbanks – Anchorage – Seattle
    Alaska Airlines First Class
    Boeing 737-400 N771AS
    Boeing 737-800 N593AS
    1200n – 1000pm


    Alaska’s not gonna make it easy for me to leave. After one of the snowiest February’s on record, March has delivered eight straight days of clear skies, cold nights and beautiful days. I awoke this morning at 7:30am and, after putting some water on the stove for my shower, I fired up my laptop to see if my South African train ticket voucher had finally arrived. Yes! Finally! At the eleventh hour! I then checked in online for my noon flight, showered, ran a few last minute errands in town and returned home to complete packing. My ride to the airport arrived at 10:30am and one hour later I was sat in the gate lounge primed and ready to commence this journey.

    At the gate sat Alaska’s 737-400 N771AS, at seventeen years old one of the oldest aircraft in the fleet though still quite capable of jetting us down to Anchor Town in comfort and safety. First Class checked in full for this flight, but the crew did a nice job of getting us all watered and settled in while the nearly full load from Economy Class filed through the cabin. Pushback was right on time and flight time down to Anchorage was announced at forty-one minutes with good views of Denali promised.

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    Southbound over the Alaska Range enroute to Anchorage

    Well let me tell you, it was a spectacular day for flying and yes, those of us sat on the right hand side of the aircraft were treated to magnificent views of the Alaska Range and its crown jewel, Mt. McKinley. Known locally as Denali, it is at 20, 320’ (6,194m) by far the tallest point in North America. There’s no mistaking its massif, particularly on a beautiful clear day like today. I took a picture…

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    Denali (20,320’) and Mt. Foraker (17,400’)
    Twenty five minutes later we were touching down at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and parking at gate C1. A McDonald’s was located directly across the concourse from the gate but they had no salads so I retired to the Boardroom where a delicious bowl of Baja Chicken soup and a plate of broccoli and dip awaited.

    With four hours to wait until my next flight, I had plenty of time to get this trip report started. For me, starting a trip report is the hardest part. The introduction is such an important part of setting the tone for the report to follow. Sometimes I’m able to just launch right into it and flow – other times it’s like walking through molasses. Today was somewhere in between.

    * * * * * * * * * * *

    As of this flight down to Anchorage, I’ve logged 818,760 miles aboard Alaska Airlines. Just over 167,000 miles of that have come aboard Alaska’s 737-800s. How do I know this? I’ve been logging all of my flights since I was but a wee lad and I’ve been quite diligent and detailed about it. I do take note of the registration number and as a result I know that over the years I’ve flown all of Alaska’s 737-200s, -400s, -700s and -900s along with all of the MD-80s. So far I’ve flown 42 of the 51 737-800s in the fleet, but scoring a flight aboard the remaining nine has been tough. Everything is totally left to chance and Lady Luck has not shined too favorably upon me over the past year, bestowing just two new aircraft to my “collection”. Perhaps tonight my luck would change…

    Then again, perhaps not. Waiting at the gate was ship 593, upon which I’ve already logged six flights and 8,150 miles. Oh well. I get to play again tomorrow on my midday departure between Portland and Los Angeles. Wish me luck...

    School’s out for spring break in Alaska and so most of the flights leaving the state are packed. I was incredibly fortunate to get a seat on this well timed nonstop despite having made this reservation rather impulsively just a few short weeks ago. I am doubly fortunate that today is such a nice day and I have a window seat allowing me to better enjoy one of the most spectacular air routes in North America. Check out the pictures:

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    Climbing out of Anchorage over the Chugatch Mountains

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    Sun and shadows over the Wrangell Mountains

    The dinner service commenced about 40 minutes out of Anchorage. Both I and my seatmate began with a round of Bloody Mary’s, accompanied by a packet of Blue Diamond Roasted Almonds. I grew up in the days when a packet of almonds accompanied all drinks in Coach, while Macadamia nuts were served up front (at least on United they were). I still prefer almonds with my pre-dinner cocktails – even at home – so I made sure to pick up a couple of packets before I left Fairbanks. Thankfully there were plenty enough in one packet for us both to enjoy while we reminisced about life and times in Alaska during the wild Seventies.

    Dinner consisted of a small chicken breast topped with a red Italian sauce with olives. I believe this entrée is called Mediterranean Chicken. Based upon the Lilliputian-like size of the breast, I’m not entirely convinced that it actually is chicken. I have never seen such small chicken breasts anywhere else other than aboard Alaska flights. I suspect that Alaska is actually using Cornish Game Hens or Guinea Fowl. Either that or they’re buying their chickens from some famine ravaged region of the world like the horn of Africa.

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    Mediterranean Chicken Dinner

    Thanks to a moderate tailwind, we landed in Seattle five minutes ahead of schedule. The crew at C-9 was ready and waiting for us and baggage arrived well within Alaska’s 20-minute guaranteed delivery time. Flights on Alaska Airlines really don’t come any finer than this these days. Well done, Alaska!

    Given the late hour, I collected my pack and retired to my favorite hidden corner of SeaTac, located in an area where no casual airport sleeper would ever stay due to the cold linoleum floor. Thanks to my comfy Thermarest Pad, wool blanket and pillow, I can comfortably crash just about anywhere besides the bright and noisy public areas. I slept undisturbed until my alarm went off at 6:30am.
     
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  3. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    March 09, 2011
    Seattle – Portland – Los Angeles
    Horizon Airlines Economy Class
    DeHavilland Canada DHC-8-400 N435QX
    Alaska Airlines First Class
    Boeing 737-800 N570AS
    8:30am – 2:40pm


    I had plenty of time to get cleaned up and changed into a new shirt before heading upstairs to check-in. Hot coffee and the morning newspaper awaited at Alaska’s Boardroom, where I also ran across an old friend from Anchorage on her way back home.

    Down at C2 was an impressive collection of collegiate liveried Dash 8s. My flight to Portland was serviced by N435QX, proudly wearing the purple and gold of the Washington Huskies. Parked on either side of us were Dash 8s representing the Washington State Cougars and the University of Montana Grizzlies. Upon arrival in Portland we parked next to a CRJ-700 bearing the green and gold of the Oregon Ducks. Two gates down was the OSU liveried CRJ. I haven’t seen so much color on the ramp since I last flew Western Pacific back in 1996. Those of you old enough to remember may recall that Western Pacific sold billboard advertising space upon every jet in its fleet. The only airline I can think of that was more colorful was Ecuatoriana back in the early 1980s.

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    Cruising down to Portland on one of Horizon’s Dash 8s

    Faced with a two hour and twenty minute layover at PDX, I made arrangements to meet a couple of old friends from Denali and one new friend from FlyerTalk (opushomes). We all got together at Breakers Restaurant for breakfast and I dropped off my overnight bag (Thermarest, blanket, alarm clock, mini-maglite headlamp and eyeshades), to be picked up later this month when I commence a series of mileage runs.

    It’s always tough to say goodbye when you’re having a good time and as usual I stretched things out a few minutes farther than I probably should have. Down at Gate C-7, three gate agents awaited my imminent arrival. Although I showed up at the gate 19 minutes prior to departure, I was – as is so often the case – the last one to board. It was a full flight, too, so I got “the look” from a couple of passengers as well. Well they’ll get no sympathy from me. I know Alaska likes to leave early if they can, but one thing I’m pretty sure they can’t do is leave 17-18 minutes early. The earliest ahead of schedule that I’ve ever departed on an Alaska flight was about 12 minutes early out of Fairbanks once.

    I ate a light breakfast in anticipation of Alaska’s luncheon service to follow just two hours later. Opushomes warned me that Alaska probably wouldn’t be serving anything too substantial, and had I known that all we’d be offered was a hummus plate, I would have ordered a full omelet for breakfast. Instead I nibbled on hummus, pita bread and almonds all washed down admirably with a couple of Bloody Mary’s.

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    Snack time on Alaska’s PDX-LAX service

    We were fortunate to arrive on one of the clearest days I’ve ever seen in Southern California. Mind you, I’ve seen plenty of sunny, cloudless days in the LA basin but there was usually always a fair bit of marine haze or outright smog. Today was crystal clear. We landed ten minutes early, though that was quickly negated by the time we’d taxied the long way over to our gate.

    I collected my backpack and headed over to the Holiday Inn Express in Hawthorne. Located just 10 minutes from LAX, this hotel offers great rates along with excellent rooms and service. The morning breakfast buffet even includes eggs and bacon.
     
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  4. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    March 10, 2011
    Los Angeles – Hong Kong
    Cathay Pacific First Class
    Boeing 777-300 B-KPL Seat 1K
    11:20am – 6:35pm Flight time: 15:01


    I have been so looking forward to this day ever since this trip started to take form a few weeks ago. Really, the next four days are going to be nothing but pure bliss as I, a guy who drives a bus for a living, lives in a cabin without water and sleeps on airport floors, will get to revel in the lap of luxury starting with a nice fifteen hour First Class flight aboard one of the world’s finest airlines across the Pacific to Hong Kong. Then it’s on across southern Asia and the Indian Ocean to Johannesburg, South Africa where I have a comfortable private room booked for the night until the next day when my Premiere Class train – upon which I’ve booked a private compartment – will commence a 25 hour journey to Cape Town. Following a brief stay in Cape Town, it’s off to Mossel Bay where three nights in a private compartment aboard a train converted into a hotel await. Plus a few other myriad activities in the region. Right on!

    Add to that the reality that two weeks from today I’ll be camping out and enjoying good times, good tunes and good friends at a four day music festival way up on the Suwannee River in North Florida. Not only that, but three weeks from today I’ll be back in the Mojave Desert with a big car and a cooler full of beer. Life could hardly be finer!

    * * * * * * * * * * *
    I love the drive into LAX along Century Boulevard. The broad palm lined promenade is home to many of LA’s finest airport hotels and seems a much more fitting approach to one of the world’s leading international airports than driving in along some concrete parkway through barren fields.

    Arrival at the Tom Bradley International Terminal was not quite so appealing. My driver worked hard to find a place to pull in and then drop me off amongst the throngs of humanity trying to get into – and out of – the terminal. Honestly, there were almost as many people milling around outside the building as inside. Perhaps some of them were with big Asian tour groups awaiting their ground transport. Certainly there were hordes of smokers effectively obliterating any notion of stepping outside for a little “fresh air”.

    After running the gauntlet outside, I easily located Cathay Pacific’s check-in counter and was bagged, tagged and on my way to the One World Lounge mere minutes later. I’d not visited this lounge since flying out of LA on BA back in March of 2008, so I was looking forward to an hour or so’s worth of a return visit. First however, I had to get through security.

    I am not one who is rabidly anti-TSA. I understand what they do and why they do it and for the most part I am reasonably patient with their procedures, however inane they may seem at times. Today however was just ridiculous.

    The idea behind Priority Lanes at security checkpoints is to speed those folks traveling in First or Business Class or elite level flyers through the security checkpoint. This is accomplished primarily by getting them up to the metal detectors and X-ray machines faster. Call me spoiled if you like, but as an elite level flyer who’s averaged over 175,000 miles flown per year over the past ten years, this is one perk that’s well earned and well appreciated. Here at Milepoint I suspect there are a substantial number of equally “spoiled” flyers who would agree with me.

    The Priority Lane ID checkpoint at TBIT was being manned by one lady who was checking the IDs of not just the First and Business Class passengers in the Priority Lane but also anyone and everyone from the Special Needs lane, which included people in wheelchairs, people with walkers, a man with a cane, any and all families with children and all flight crews. Since families (obviously) and disabled people rarely travel alone, that lane was never empty. What would happen is the TSA lady would check the boarding pass and passport of one person from the Priority Lane, then check the boarding passes and passports of the family of four in the Special Needs Lane. Then it was back to the Priority Lane for just one person or a couple traveling together, then back to another family or someone in a wheelchair with their accompanying family members or an entire crew worth of Flight Attendants! Then back to one single person in the Priority Lane. I watched a guy in a red jacket who’d entered the regular lane for Economy Class flyers about five minutes after I’d already been in the Priority Lane. That line was starting to get somewhat long by the time he’d arrived. He was cleared and through security eleven minutes before I finally got to the ID checkpoint. I know – I timed it.

    As ever there were more than a few blue shirted TSA folks just standing around. I have never consistently seen more uniformed employees apparently just standing around than at any TSA checkpoint. You’d like to think that any one of them likely could have stepped in and helped out. Unfortunately it would seem that initiative is frowned upon for lower level government workers and barring a direct order from a supervisor – assumedly one who’d been astute enough to keep an eye on the proceedings at his or her checkpoint - they were powerless to do anything but just stand around. Stuff like this is why you could not pay me any amount of money to work for the TSA. There’s just too much mindlessness going on – be it in planning or in execution. I can’t imagine how anyone with half a brain could work there longer than a month.

    Anyway, on to the lounge. Accessed by elevator just past security , the One World Lounge is located up on the fifth floor of the TBIT. A receptionist checked my boarding pass, took my invite card and directed me toward the First Class side of the lounge.

    In terms of ambience, this lounge is not particularly overwhelming. Certainly it would not be confused with Qantas’ excellent facilities in either Sydney or Melbourne, or Cathay’s in Hong Kong. One would think that Los Angeles, being the second largest city in the United States, a center of culture and industry in addition to being a gateway to dozens of international destinations, would rate a larger and more pleasant facility.

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    One World Lounge at LAX

    Mind you, we’re talking simple ambience here. Otherwise, this lounge provided a decent variety of hot and cold food stuffs relative to the time of day as well as a self service bar featuring a variety of decent quality spirits and liquors. The lounge staff did a good job of keeping the place tidy and overall I’d say that it’s a decent enough lounge – it just feels a bit cramped.

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    One World Lounge Cold Food

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    One World Lounge Hot Food

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    One World Lounge Bar Selection

    Because of the debacle at the TSA checkpoint, I only got to spend about twenty minutes of preflight lounging over a mid-morning taste of Gentleman Jack’s bourbon (I’d seen it in stores and been curious but as yet had never tried it) before a boarding announcement was made for CX 885. Unfortunately, our aircraft was remotely parked, meaning there’d be no leisurely and laggardly stroll to the gate for me. It was pretty much boogie on down to gate 138 and jam onto a bus with 100 or so other folks. Then get dropped off at the remote gate and queue up for the long and dreary trudge up to and through the jetway to the aircraft. First Class Priority Boarding? We don got no steenkin Firs Class Lanes here at remote boarding!

    [​IMG]
    Cathay Pacific 777-300ER in the One World livery awaits
     
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  5. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    Once on board, things improved dramatically. Upon spying seat 1K on my boarding pass, the Flight Attendant manning the entry door greeted me by name and passed me off to another Flight Attendant who escorted me to my seat, hung my jacket, helped stow my gear, and then brought me a nicely chilled glass of Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne. Yes!!! God, it’s good to be back in International First Class!

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    Krug Champagne ~ A great way to start your flight

    The First Class cabins aboard Cathay Pacific’s 777-300s are outfitted with six wonderfully spacious suites – three less than the number of seats in a single row of Economy Class. They are configured in two rows of 1-1-1, so if you consider how wide the cabin is on a Boeing 777, each suite is about four feet wide by seven feet long. They provide a huge amount of personal space and when you’re faced with a fifteen hour trans-Pacific flight, that makes all the difference between dread and delight.

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    Spacious accommodations in Cathay Pacific’s First Class Suite

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    Room to stretch your legs

    An amenity kit and pajamas were delivered in short order, followed by a refill on my Champagne. I took a long swig from the glass, reclined my seat a bit and gazed out my windows at the distant mountains, not a care in the world. Meanwhile, just one hundred feet behind me, the scene was decidedly more chaotic. Approximately one hundred and eighty people were attempting to settle themselves and their belongings into Economy Class seats that offered approximately one seventh the amount of personal space of my suite. What I’ve always found interesting is how despite having spent a good portion of my life sitting in Economy Class, once I’m in First Class it’s so easy to completely forget the hundreds of other people riding along on the same airplane with me but doing so in far less comfort. Conversely, when I’m sat back behind the curtain, I’m very well aware of the fact that there’s a First Class cabin at the forward end of the plane though I’ve never been all that bothered that I’m not sat up there.

    Shortly the Captain came on over the PA, introduced himself and informed us that our flying time to Hong Kong today would be fifteen hours and one minute. If that holds true, this will become the longest flight I’ve ever flown upon in terms of flying time. No complaints there, especially whilst comfortably ensconced in Suite 1K.

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    We’ve got a looooong flight ahead…

    Amazingly, it took us just over twenty minutes from the time we first started taxiing away from our stand to the time that we began our takeoff roll from Runway 25 – this despite never following any aircraft out to the runway. I think we went all the way down to the other end of the airport, crossed over, then taxied all the way back up to the eastern end of runway 25. When you consider the amount of fuel a big jetliner uses while just taxiing, I’m surprised the airlines haven’t pushed LAX to develop a more efficient way to get from the remote gates over to 25R.

    The nose wheel camera did a nice job of capturing the take off roll – this was the first time I’d ever seen one from that perspective. We climbed out over the Pacific Ocean and then turned to the north, paralleling the coast up to about Santa Barbara before heading inland for a bit. As pretty a day as it was, I think I prefer the coast around LA at night when it’s all lit up. Spectacular!

    [​IMG]
    Climbing away from Los Angeles aboard Cathay’s 777-300
     
  6. Denali Flyer
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    Wine lists and menus were handed out shortly after reaching cruising altitude. Although I’d been looking forward to checking out this month’s wine selections, I opted instead for one of Cathay’s Signature Cocktails, the Cloud Nine. The title seemed appropriate to my condition and the ingredients sounded... refreshing:

    “A refreshing combination of vodka, Cointreau and Sprite with a refreshing touch of lemon flavor”

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    A Cloud Nine cocktail gets things started in style

    As for the luncheon menu, it was beautiful in both presentation and content, a stylish hint of the Epicurean delights to be served aloft. On the cover was a stylish photograph of some nicely presented spring rolls and dipping sauce. Inside, the menu was every bit as impressive. Let’s have a look…

    Los Angeles to Hong Kong

    LUNCHEON

    Caviar and Fine Smoked Salmon

    Oscietra Caviar and Fine Smoked Salmon
    Served with Warm New Potatoes and Crème Fraiche


    INTERNATIONAL FAVOURITES

    Soup

    French Onion Soup

    Salad
    Caesar Salad with grilled jumbo prawns, toasted pine nuts,
    Parmesan cheese and Caesar dressing


    Grilled Prime Angus Beef Tenderloin
    With herb butter, garlic mashed potatoes, carrots and broccolini

    Sautéed Gnocchi
    With goat cheese, portabella, shiitake, asparagus and soya beans
    on tomato basil sauce


    CHINESE FAVOURITES

    Soup

    Double boiled ginseng soup with black skin chicken

    Cold Plate
    Marinated Cucumber

    Braised Abalone with Chicken
    Or
    Stir Fried Seafood
    Served with steamed jasmine rice and stir-fried mixed vegetables

    * * * * * * * * * * *

    CHEESE AND DESSERT

    Yellow Cheddar, Port Salut, Maytag Blue and Goat Cheese
    Seasonal Fresh Berries with Vanilla Cream
    Hazelnut Chocolate Cake with vanilla Ice Cream and Toffee Sauce
    Black Sesame Dessert


    TEA AND COFFEE

    Pralines


    As ever, Cathay Pacific presents an attractive and enticing selection of foods. I do however wish that, like Lufthansa, Cathay would offer a variety of different appetizers to commence the culinary festivities. It’s not that caviar and salmon aren’t a fine start to any meal but rather – from a strictly personal perspective - I really like putting together a plateful of small, exquisitely prepared appetizers. They are akin to epicurean foreplay and of course, variety is indeed the spice of life.

    I recall reading somewhere that Cathay loads at least two of each of the main course dishes, so with only three of the six First Class suites occupied, there was little question of anyone not getting their first choice, much less going hungry over the course of this fifteen hour flight.

    By now I’d polished off my refreshing but sweet vodka, Cointreau and Sprite cocktail and was ready to consider the wine selections. Here they are:

    WINE LIST

    Champagne

    Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne

    White Wines
    Estancia Reserve Monterey Chardonnay 2007
    Bouchard Pere & Fils Meursault Les Clous 2006


    Red Wines
    Kalleske Greenock Barossa Valley Shiraz 2008
    Atlas Peak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
    Chateau Lynch Bages 2004, Grand Cru Classé Pauillac 5th Growth


    Port
    Ramos Pinto Quinta da Ervamoira 10 Year Old Tawny Port


    Although I have a distinct preference for red wines, I’m more than willing to give white wines a taste, especially when flying in International First Class aboard airlines like Cathay Pacific that make a reasonable effort to offer a decent selection of quality wines. No doubt some of our wine snobs will beg to differ, but my reality as one who enjoys wine but isn’t particularly passionate about it is such that I’m not likely to ever be paying $60-80.00 a bottle for wines like the Lynch Bages, so why not sample a nice variety during the flight? Who knows, maybe I’ll come across one that I’ll feel is worth putting out the extra money for – assuming of course that I can find it available for sale.

    By now we were just off the coast of Monterey, speeding north at a sprightly 587 mph. If ever there were a time to sample a glass of the Estancia Reserve Monterey Chardonnay, now was it. May I please have a refill on these almonds as well? Thanks!

    Like all of the world’s finest airlines, Cathay Pacific allows its First Class clientele to dine on demand, at a time and pace that suits them rather than the Flight Attendants. As such, when my lovely Japanese Flight Attendant stopped by to take my luncheon order, I indicated my desire to eat at 1:30pm, starting with a plate of salmon and caviar followed by soup, salad and, for my main course, the Sautéed Gnocchi. Normally I opt for a meatier dish but I’ve always liked vegetarian fare and in particular I quite like a nicely prepared gnocchi. Today’s version, prepared with goat cheese, portabella and shiitake mushrooms, asparagus and soya beans was simply too tempting to pass up.

    By 1:30pm we’d sped well past Seattle and were about midway up Vancouver Island. Although clouds obscured any views of the beautiful landscape below, the moving Sky Map provided a nice variety of perspectives that clearly showed our present location, where we’d come from and where we were going. I took another sip of my Chardonnay (now on my second glass) and watched with anticipation as my table was set with crisp white linen, gleaming silverware, bread plate, salt and pepper shaker, olive oil and a bread basket filled with warm garlic bread and dinner rolls.

    The salmon and caviar arrived nicely plated though somewhat lacking in the portion of caviar served in years past. Two spoonfuls was always the rule up to and as recently as three years ago, but nowadays you get one small scoop braced by two strips of salmon. Speaking I hope for those of us who actually enjoy caviar, I feel that if for whatever reason it’s no longer possible to offer enough caviar to properly enjoy its exquisite essence, it’s better to offer none at all. One little spoonful doesn’t really do it for me. Two seemed much better, though admittedly twice as expensive for the airline to provide and twice as much impact on the world’s dwindling caviar supplies as environmental pollution and over-harvesting have taken a severe toll on the sturgeon population, particularly in the Caspian Sea.

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    Caviar & Salmon ~ A great way to start any meal

    Next up came a bowl of French Onion soup, attractively garnished with a large piece of cheese covered garlic bread floating in its center. Many French Onion soups are quite salty but I thought this one was just fine.

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    French Onion Soup ~ Cathay style

    The menu writers weren’t kidding when they described the prawns adorning my Caesar Salad as “Jumbo”. As I sliced them into more manageable bite sized pieces, it occurred to me that this salad alone was, with the addition of the prawn meat, larger than many Economy Class airline meals in their entirety.

    [​IMG]
    Those prawns are every bit as big as they look!

    The parade of food continued with the arrival of the Sautéed Gnocchi, tastefully presented in a medium sized bowl and garnished with shavings of real Parmesan cheese. Mmmm! This gnocchi was a good choice, not only in terms of its delicious flavor but also in the amount of food offered which surely had to be a bit less than the Beef Tenderloin dish.

    [​IMG]
    The main course gnocchi ~ Delicious
     
  7. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    By now I was getting pretty full, so I asked that my cheese and dessert courses be withheld for a half hour or so. The pause that refreshes, as it were. In some of my past trip reports, comments have been noted not only about the amount of food served but also about the amount of food eaten. To be sure, I rarely ever eat anywhere near this much food in a single meal at home, Thanksgiving being the one possible exception. The difference now of course is that I’m not at home. I’m seated in a $90,000.00 high tech suite aboard one of the world’s finest practitioners of the art of First Class air travel, an art which traditionally includes seven course meals. I want to enjoy every bit of the service, and since I only get to enjoy this style of travel every few months rather than weeks, my approach is “Live it up, baby!” Drink that Champagne, enjoy the food options and be sure to have some dessert!

    * * * * * * * * * * *

    Now that we’ve entered the digital age, inflight entertainment has improved by leaps and bounds over the old systems considered state of the art just ten years ago. Cathay Pacific’s Studio CX is one of the better IFEs out there, offering a huge selection of movies, television shows and music. The movie selection included films from Hong Kong, Hollywood and Bollywood as well as some European studios. Hollywood movies included current as well as classic movies. I settled on the Stephen King’s classic tale of a man wrongfully imprisoned in “The Crankshaft Reduction”. Cheese, Port and Hazelnut Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Toffee Sauce helped bring this movie to a most satisfying conclusion on the beaches of Zihuatanejo.

    [​IMG]
    Hazelnut Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Toffee Sauce

    By now we were a little over five hours into the flight, speeding westward while battling a tepid 35 mph headwind. Following a heading just north of the Aleutian Island chain, our 777-300 crossed the International Dateline about six hours and twenty minutes into the flight. All that wine and port I’d been drinking over the past four hours of the flight had made me well and truly sleepy, so I reclined my seat to about 160°, raised the leg rest most of the way up and napped comfortably for the next three hours.

    By the time I awoke there were still almost six hours left in the flight, about the same as a westbound transcon or a West Coast to Hawaii flight. I mention this just to give those of you who haven’t flown a flight of this length just how long it is. Fifteen hours – that’s just a number – but if you look at it as the same amount of time as if you woke up at 7:00am, went to work at 8:00am, put in a full day that had you home by 5:00pm and then had dinner and enjoyed the rest of the evening until you went to bed at 10:00pm, that’s a lot of time there. Now imagine of you woke up at 7:00am and then just sat around the house all day until 10:00pm. Whoa… long day.

    Granted the meals, the inflight entertainment options, the occasional stroll around the airplane and of course a bit of sleep combine to make this fifteen hour flight pass by a bit faster than just sitting around your house, but still, it’s one helluva long flight, about the same as taking off from New York, flying to London and then turning around in flight and flying back to New York.

    Lunch was served six hours ago. I probably won’t get around to dinner for another four and a half hours. Let’s check out that snack menu…


    SNACKS

    Wontons in Noodle Soup
    Fried Chicken with Crispy Garlic and Chilli
    Smoked Salmon with Herb Ciabatta and Mesclun Salad
    Hot Pot Rice with steamed chicken, Chinese sausage and black mushroom,
    served with daily soup



    One of the best parts of Cathay Pacific’s inflight meal offerings are its soups. We’re not talking a simple bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle here. Noooo – these are big bowls filled with thin Vermicelli type noodles and a filler such as beef, chicken, duck or, on today’s flight, shrimp filled wontons.

    [​IMG]
    Wontons in Noodle Soup

    Although wontons look like little alien brains floating around in your soup, they’re quite tasty. Additionally Cathay supplies a small dish of industrial strength hot paste. I’ve learnt from past experience that this stuff is not to be trifled with. On one flight a few years ago I blithely scraped the entire portion into my soup and spent the next ten minutes sucking air and water in equal quantities.

    Boeing’s 777-300 is a long airplane – even longer in fuselage than a standard 747. As such, it’s quite a walk all the way to the back of the plane. Notable though the distance may be, even more dramatic is the change in cabin comfort and ambience, especially when seeing the difference between Cathay’s First and Business classes.

    Many airlines have eliminated their First Class cabins altogether while others have improved their Business Class to the point where the distinction between it and First Class is becoming increasingly blurred. This is far from being the case at Cathay Pacific where the Business Class seating pales in comparison to the First Class suites. I took a moment to try out an empty Business Class seat and found that while it was actually quite comfortable to sit in, it also felt exceedingly cramped due to the high molded walls rising immediately next to it on each side. Maybe an old country boy like me just needs more openness, but this seat felt at once dark and claustrophobic – not a good feeling with fifteen hours of flying ahead – unless you’ve been upgraded from Economy. In any event, I understand that there’ve been quite a few complaints about Cathay’s current Business Class seat resulting in Cathay’s planned roll out of a new, much more spacious Business Class seat. Check it out at Cathay’s web site. It looks much, much better.

    I chose to have dinner about an hour out of Hong Kong. The dinner service is not nearly so elaborate as the luncheon service, so serving it only an hour out of Hong Kong is easily accomplished. Let’s have a look at the menu again…


    DINNER

    Starter

    Fresh seasonal fruit

    MAIN COURSES

    Pan Fried Sea Bass with Apple Cider Sauce

    Served with fingerling potatoes, roasted fennel and baby squash

    Stir-Fried Beef with Mixed Peppers
    Presented with steamed jasmine rice and kalian

    Penne Pasta with Creamy Tomato Sauce
    Accented with roasted artichoke and spinach

    * * * * * * * * * * *

    CHEESE AND DESSERT

    Camembert, Smoked Baby Swiss, Gorgonzola and Herbed Goat Cheese
    Pear Charlotte with Mixed Berry Compote


    TEA AND COFFEE

    Pralines


    Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d ask if in lieu of fresh fruit there might be any more caviar available. Yes indeed replied my lovely FA, who then delivered unto me a plate with not one but three small scoops of the exquisite eggs. Mmmm! Heavenly…

    [​IMG]
    Caviar service – Part 2

    I had the Stir-Fried Beef with Mixed Peppers last year on my SFO-HKG flight. It was good but not overly remarkable, so this time I decided to go with the Pan Fried Sea Bass with Apple Cider Sauce. I recall a variation of this dish that I had on a HKG-SYD flight a few years ago and remembered it being quite good. This evening’s example did not disappoint either. Even better though was the Pear Charlotte with Mixed Berry Compote. Wow! Now that’s one of the better inflight desserts I’ve ever had! Well done, Cathay!

    [​IMG]
    Pan Fried Sea Bass with Apple Cider Sauce

    [​IMG]
    Pear Charlotte with Mixed Berry Compote

    By the time the last of my plates were cleared, we were well into our descent into Hong Kong’s International Airport at Chek Lap Kok. As usual the descent was through low clouds and light rain, extending my streak of never having landed or taken off out of Hong Kong under clear skies. I will of course keep trying. It is an enjoyable pursuit, especially when undertaken from the vantage point of a First Class seat aboard Cathay Pacific.
     
  8. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    March 11, 2011
    Hong Kong - Johannesburg
    Cathay Pacific First Class
    Boeing 747-400 B-HOT Seat 2K
    11:45pm – 6:35am Flight time: 12:28


    The on-time arrival of my inbound flight to Hong Kong allowed me an almost five hour layover during which I managed about three and a half hours of intermittent sleep in one of the day use rooms at Cathay’s “other” First Class lounge known as ‘The Pier”. I might have slept better except that the room was surprisingly cold. The thermostat offered a range of between 22° and 25°C, but I think it may have been off a bit because it felt more like about 17°. After a couple of hours of waking up shivering, I got smart and requested a blanket.

    My flight to Johannesburg was departing from Gate 61, conveniently located right next door to The Pier. I arrived about 30 minutes before departure to find long lines already established for both Economy and the Premium classes. I’ve never liked standing in long lines so I took a seat until boarding was called. When it was, the Premium classes were called first and boarding proceeded smoothly. As one who’s logged over 4250 flights, I can’t tell you how much a civil and organized boarding process is appreciated as opposed to a mad rush to the jetway.

    Once onboard, I was greeted warmly by the two First Class Flight Attendants and thereupon attended to with all manner of niceties such as Champagne, hot towels, amenity kits, extra pillows, a bottle of water… nothing was too much to ask. In short, Gita and Gordon combined to make me feel like visiting royalty. They are indeed a credit to their profession.

    [​IMG]
    Late Night Champagne aboard Cathay Pacific’s Midnight Flight to Africa

    The growl of the tractor directly beneath me was followed by a smooth pushback out and away from the terminal. The only sense of the engines starting was a very slight hum and vibration. Sitting up in the nose of a 747 puts one so far forward of the engines that you can hardly hear them. Following a brief taxi we thundered down the runway and soared swiftly into the dark skies above Hong Kong. Flight time to Johannesburg was projected at twelve hours and twenty-one minutes though our Captain advised that we might encounter a bit of turbulence out over the Indian Ocean.

    For anyone who truly enjoys flying, one of the most cherished benefits is the ability to gaze out over this beautiful bluish-green orb that we live on from the vantage point of a comfortable seat 38,000’ above. Unfortunately for this flight, the majority of the journey would be in darkness. As such, I decided to add to the three and a half hours of intermittent sleep I’d recently gotten in Hong Kong and so informed Gita that I’d be sleeping first – till whenever – and then checking out the dinner options after waking. I suspect everyone else chose to eat first and then sleep, awaking just an hour or so before the scheduled 6:45am arrival at Johannesburg. This makes sense if you’ve begun your journey in Hong Kong or the surrounding region. For me however, having started from a time zone sixteen hours later than in Hong Kong, I was by now all mixed up and above all just plain tired, so why not just go with what my body’s telling me and sleep now. Besides, I don’t sleep well if I’ve just eaten and I’ve found from past experience on these midnight runs to JNB that waking up after a good sleep six or seven hours out from JNB leaves me with enough energy to power through the first day in Africa pretty well.

    [​IMG]
    Cathay Pacific’s 747 speeds us comfortably through the night
     
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  9. Hartmann
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    Hartmann Gold Member

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    Great trip report!

    Where did you find the CX 777 and 744 for X-Plane?
     
  10. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    Awaking after a sleep of just four and a half hours, I felt surprisingly refreshed and more than a bit hungry. Despite the prodigious amounts of food and beverage offered and consumed on my flight into Hong Kong, it had been about eleven hours since I’d last eaten and so I had no difficulty drumming up an appetite for the delicious assortment of foods offered in the menu for this flight. Let’s have a look, shall we?

    DINNER
    Hong Kong to Johannesburg

    Caviar and Balik Salmon Delight
    Oscietra Caviar and Balik Salmon “Tsar Nicolaj”
    Served with Warm New Potatoes and Crème Fraiche


    Soup
    White bean garlic and herb soup

    Salad
    Mesclun salad with asparagus and sun-dried tomato
    Served with Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinaigrette


    Bread Basket
    Assorted Bread and Rolls

    ** ***** **

    INTERNATIONAL FAVOURITES

    Grilled U.S. Prime Beef Tenderloin

    Presented with gratin potato, asparagus and baby carrots

    Saffron Fettuccini
    Accented with bacon and tomato sauce and sautéed Portobello mushrooms

    CHINESE FAVOURITES

    Starters

    [/i]Pork Soup with winter melon and dried duck gizzard
    Cold Plate – Deep fried sea bass with sweet vinegar dressing[/i]

    Prawn Butterfly wrapped with Bean Curd Skin
    Served with steamed jasmine rice and stir-fried asparagus, peppers and shimeji mushrooms

    ** ***** **

    CHEESE AND DESSERT

    Forme d’Ambert, Manchego, Arenberger and French Brie
    Seasonal Fresh Berries in ginger syrup
    Cherry Clafoutis Cake with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis
    Sweet Taro and Sago Coconut Soup


    TEA and COFFEE

    Pralines


    This menu was almost exactly the same as the menu offered on this flight when I flew it last year at about this time. Cathay Pacific prides itself on offering “The Best Chinese Food In The Air” and though I don’t have nearly the experience of trip report luminaries like tfung or Carfield when it comes to flying and dining in First Class aboard Asian airlines, I would agree that Cathay’s Asian fare is quite nice in both flavor and presentation. Normally, when flying out of an airport like Singapore or Hong Kong, I try to select those dishes which are indigenous to the region. After all, I can have “Beef or Chicken” any old time on most other airlines. Tonight however, I went with the Grilled U.S. Prime Beef Tenderloin because last year I had the prawn dish and while it was pretty good, it wasn’t spectacularly so.

    [​IMG]
    My Third Helping of Caviar in 24 Hours

    [​IMG]
    White Bean Garlic and Herb Soup

    [​IMG]
    Mesclun Salad with Asparagus and Sun-dried Tomato

    [​IMG]
    Grilled U.S. Prime Beef Tenderloin

    Well let me tell you that the steak I was served was one of the more nicely cooked steaks that I’ve ever been served aloft. So often on these pages we hear tales of overcooked beef with terms like “rugged”, “leathery” and “rubbery” used to describe the consistency of the meat. The steak I was served tonight was tender, tasty and still nice and pink inside. It went down quite nicely with a glass of the South African Shiraz. Speaking of which, here’s the wine list:


    WINE LIST

    Champagne

    Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne

    White Wines
    Bouchard Pere & Fils Meursault Les Clous 2006
    Chain Of Ponds Corkscrew Road Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2006


    Red Wines
    Chateau Lynch Bages 2003
    Klein Zalze Stellenbosch Vineyard Selection Shiraz 2007
    Terrabianca “Campaccio Riserva” Toscana IGT 2004


    Port
    Ramos Pinto Quinta da Ervamoira 10 Year Old Tawny Port


    [​IMG]
    Cheese and Port

    Perhaps it was the wine, for although I limited myself to just the one glass, I once again felt a need for a bit of a nap about an hour after dinner. With only four of the nine suites in First Class being occupied, I’d left my assigned seat 2K in its flat bed configuration and taken my meal across the cabin in 2A. Now I simply went back to bed for a two hour “power nap”. When I awoke we were still a little over three hours out, cruising along at 583 mph while approaching the northern tip of Madagascar. The outside air temperature was a chilly -61°F. Under my duvet it was substantially more pleasant and I read for about an hour before relocating to 2A in order to view the sunrise, which is always a highlight of this flight for me.

    By the way, for those who so desire a bit to eat between the dinner and breakfast services, there is also a snack menu available. Here it is:


    SNACK

    Beef Skewer

    Served with salad and capsicum relish

    Assorted Sandwiches
    Cherry cream cheese with roasted pecan, smoked turkey with earl grey honey butter, smoked salmon with lemon cream cheese

    From our series of classic Signature dishes
    Shrimp wontons with noodle in soup

    Ice Cream


    I settled for a cup of coffee and a Danish to energize me while putting in some work on this trip report. I am often asked how I manage to remember all the different aspects of the flights that I report on and to be honest, it’s really quite easy, not unlike cue notes when making a speech. For the most part I don’t need much to remember these flights. I’ve written a couple of trip reports on flights that I took back in the 1970s and I’m confident that the details are pretty darned close to right on. Like anyone, I have a good memory for that which interests me. Nonetheless, it never hurts to jot down anything I notice during the flight that stands out or which I feel might be interesting to comment upon later. Judging from some trip reports, I can’t help but wonder if the writers have a form on which to list things like what time the doors were closed, what runway we took off from, what time the descent commenced, etc. I could never remember stuff like that but then stuff like that is also outside my scope of interest. The stuff I am interested in is easy to remember, even now one week later from the deck of this nice old Dutch Cape home from which I now try to bring this trip report up to date after a nice day in and around the town of Knysna, South Africa.
     
  11. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    Leading nutritionists generally agree that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While I sometimes find it easy to go light on breakfast at home, the delectable array of foodstuffs presented in Cathay’s menu had me looking forward to a breakfast of considerable substance. Check it out!


    BREAKFAST

    Orange, Apple or Grapefruit Juice
    Pink Guava Smoothie
    Fresh Seasonal Fruit
    Natural or Low Fat Fruit Yogurt
    Assorted Cereals


    ** ***** **

    MAIN COURSES

    Free Range Organic Eggs
    ~ Freshly Scrambled, Fried or Boiled
    Served with your choice of back bacon, pork sausage, Lyonnaise potatoes,
    Roma tomato or sautéed mushrooms


    Dim Sum served with Chilli Sauce
    Asparagus dumpling, seafood and preserved “kung choi” vegetables dumpling, beef ball and mini-vegetable glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf

    Poached Smoked Haddock
    Served with butter and fresh milk

    Bread Basket
    Assorted Breakfast Bread and Fresh Toast
    Served with Preserves, Honey and Butter
    Tea and Coffee



    While my table linen was being laid, I took a few moments to enjoy the beautiful sunrise off the port side of the aircraft. So many people go through entire flights with their window shades drawn, thereby missing some truly stunning visages of our planet from a perspective rarely enjoyed by most. It’s really a beautiful world up here, definitely worth taking the time to check out now and then.

    [​IMG]
    Sunrise Orchid

    [​IMG]
    Sunrise over the Indian Ocean

    Cathay sets an elaborate breakfast table that includes a bread plate, a butter dish, a small plate for jams and honey, a complete coffee service, a bread basket and a salt and pepper shaker. Add to all this your main dish of fruit or eggs and you’ve got quite a tableful.

    I started with a fruit plate and finished with a serving of fried eggs with all the usual trimmings. I asked for my eggs fried over medium and darned if they weren’t done just perfectly where the yolk was still soft but not runny. Many land based restaurants have trouble with this seemingly simple request. A glass of nicely chilled pink guava juice was a nice touch and overall, breakfast could hardly be finer at 38,000!

    [​IMG]
    Fruit Plate

    [​IMG]
    My kind of breakfast table

    By the time the last of my plates were cleared however, we were just commencing our descent into Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport. We touched down smoothly and as I glanced at my watch I noted the time with satisfaction: 6:28am – seven minutes early but right on time at the gate. Taxiing into the terminal, we passed a small herd of South African Airlink BAe-146s resting quietly at a remote paddock. When it comes to regional jets, I have never ridden upon a more spacious and comfortable airplane. Unfortunately the world’s fleet of 146s is dwindling as they are being replaced by more fuel efficient – and much smaller – Embraers and CRJs. I should imagine the ones that don’t end up with third world start ups will convert nicely into business jets. I hope I log another flight or two on one before they are totally gone.

    And so the First Class air travel portion of my journey has come to an end. From the perspective of Cathay Pacific’s First Class Suite, commercial air travel really doesn’t get much better than this flight. A spacious suite, an on time departure, a comfortable bed, delicious food and beverages, attentive service and an on time arrival. Just perfect.
     
  12. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    JOHANNESBURG LAYOVER

    Sailing quickly through both Immigration and Customs, I emerged into the arrivals hall looking for my name. There was quite literally no sign of me, so I took advantage of the free time to hit an ATM Machine and then purchase some stamps from the nearby post office. By the time I returned my ride was ready and waiting for me. We climbed into an older Ford Ranger pick-up truck and sped off to my accommodations for the night, located in the suburb of Kensington, just fifteen minutes from the airport.

    Gandhi’s Backpackers is housed in a stately older home built in 1874. The present owner lives in the Nederlands but leases the house out to Heinz, a Swiss national who owns Gandhi’s Backpackers. Word is Gandhi himself stayed in this house back in the day, thus the name of the business.

    I had arranged for single ensuite accommodations and was given a large airy room just off the swimming pool. Unlike Starwood or InterContinental Hotels there are of course no upgrades to suites nor Executive lounges providing complimentary snacks and beverages. A self-service continental breakfast is available in the large kitchen each morning, and a variety of cold beers and mixed drinks are available in the thatched roof bar located poolside. Total cost: $40.00 USD per night.

    [​IMG]
    Gandhi Backpackers main house and pool

    [​IMG]
    Looking across the pool at the thatched roof bar

    Unfortunately, my arrival time was too late to catch the early morning departure for the tour to the Apartheid Museum and Soweto. Alas. I lounged out by the pool in the bright morning sun while chatting with some American Peace Corps volunteers who were just getting ready to head back to work up north. Lunch was taken at an excellent Portuguese restaurant just down the road and I spent the afternoon walking around Kensington (what of it there is) before heading home for a jetlag induced nap.

    [​IMG]
    King sized bed in my room

    That evening I enjoyed a brace of ice cold Windhoek Lagers with a few of my hostel mates whilst catching up on local sports scores and the news at the bar via the Aljazeera News Network. Later we had some fun comparing old travel photos. It would have been a lot harder to do this years ago – at least while traveling – but with laptops, cell phones and mp3 players all capable of storing pictures, there were plenty to go around. My recently taken pictures of First Class service and accommodations aboard Cathay Pacific proved to be quite a hit but I thought the best shots of the evening were some wildlife pictures taken by a couple who’d just returned from Etosha up in Namibia.

    [​IMG]
    The Bar at Gandhi Backpackers
     
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  13. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    March 13, 2011
    Johannesburg - Capetown
    Shosholoza Meyl Premiere Classe
    Car 9 ~ Compartment B
    300p – 415p +1


    After a lazy morning spent lolling around the pool, I was driven to Johannesburg’s Park Station and dropped off at what I was told was the main entrance. There may have been a time when this station presented a more impressive exterior, but where I was dropped off today looked more like a service entrance, entering via a narrow passageway under a concrete overpass. This was hardly the grand entrance that one might expect as a patron of Shosholoza Meyl’s “Premier Classe” train to Cape Town.

    [​IMG]
    Johannesburg’s Park Station

    Shosholoza Meyl is the new name of the old South African Railways. It operates scheduled passenger services between major South African cities featuring Economy Class seating as well as Tourist Class sleeper compartments. A few years ago I rode the Tourist Class sleeper from Durban to Johannesburg and on to Port Elizabeth. It was a fairly straight forward operation providing a basic non air-conditioned sleeper compartment and a dining car. Food services had been contracted out to a local budget restaurant chain and the meals offered were simple but fairly decent.

    In addition to its normally scheduled passenger operations, Shosholoza Meyl also operate another class of service known as Premier Classe. This is an all First Class train providing a higher level of comfort and amenities than one would receive aboard the everyday trains. Premier Classe is Shosholoza Meyl’s answer to South Africa’s famous Blue Train, and while it is nowhere near as luxurious or by extension expensive, the service and facilities are much, much nicer than those found on the normal trains.

    Last year, as part of my 6 Trains On 6 Continents trip, I rode the Premier Classe train between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. That train passes through the spectacular 3000 foot deep Toorwaterpoort Gorge, then down the Montagu Pass through the Outeniqua Mountains. Unfortunately, internal problems and maintenance issues have resulted in service on the Port Elizabeth-Cape Town route being discontinued though Premier Classe trains still operate between Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Never having ridden the direct service between Jo’Berg and Cape Town, I contacted African Sun Travel and made a reservation. Though I would like to have spent a couple of days in Johannesburg, the Sunday departure worked out well enough and now here I was standing in the cavernous Park Station looking for a public toilet and the Premier Classe Lounge in no particular order.

    I found the Shosholoza Meyl information desk easily enough and from there was directed to the Premier Classe Lounge where I checked in with a casually uniformed representative. I was handed a boarding card while my back pack was tagged and taken away to be later delivered to my compartment. The lounge itself was nothing special – lots of lounge chairs and low tables packed into a nondescript room with bare white walls. All of the passengers were white. All of the staff were black. Coffee and cookies were available along the far wall, so I headed over there for a cup.

    Now for most of us, fixing yourself a cup of coffee is the epitome of a self-service operation but alas, not here in South Africa where menial labor is all the rage. Here there are uniformed people to “help” you park your car, or just to “watch” your car. There are uniformed “security guards” everywhere, but all they have is a uniform and not much else. Mostly they appear to just stand around in front of places like ATM machines or store entrances. Here’s how it went down in the Premier Classe lounge: I selected a cup and then handed it to a uniformed employee who added a teaspoon of instant coffee and then handed the cup through a window to another employee working in a makeshift “kitchen”. I waited for a good two or three minutes while water was micro waved and then added to my cup which was then stirred and passed back to me. With about thirty passengers in the lounge and more arriving every few minutes, one would think it would make sense to at least have some hot water ready to go for the expected demand in coffee or tea. One would think… but then this is South Africa. I was thankful for the opportunity to select my own cookie.

    Boarding was called fifteen minutes late at 3:00pm, but from that point on things were also handled in a much more professional manner. We were led downstairs to Track 15 where a train employee directed us to our respective cars. I was in Car 9, Compartment B, just two down to the right. All of the cars were painted a medium shade of purple, offset by flat black roofs. Embossed in gold lettering along the side of each car was the title “Premier Classe”.

    [​IMG]
    Premier Class train awaiting departure at Johannesburg

    As a single traveler I would normally be assigned a single compartment, but perhaps because this afternoon’s departure was only about 60% full, I’d instead been upgraded to a larger double compartment. Just to be sure, I double checked the outside of my compartment door where a small card bearing my name had been affixed. Yes!!! Stepping back into my spacious accommodations, I took a moment to revel in the wonderfully cool air conditioning before storing my pack and taking stock of my home for the next 25 hours.

    [​IMG]
    Awright! A double compartment!!

    [​IMG]
    Welcome Aboard letter

    My compartment was approximately six feet wide by eight feet tall. On each side of it were low, long couches facing each other with a small table between them mounted along the far wall. The walls had been paneled in rich brown native wood, and the couches had been upholstered in similarly attractive fabric. The two windows featured curtains and solid wooden pull down shades. On one side where the upper bunk used to be was now a wooden cabinet and shelf fixture. Stacked on the shelf were two thick, fluffy towels, a terry cloth robe and a pair of sandals for use when heading into the shower. Complimentary bottled water along with shampoo and body wash had also been supplied. Totally satisfied with my accommodations, I took a couple of pictures and headed out to inspect the rest of the train.
     
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  14. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    At the end of my car was a toilet and a shower. Conveniently located the next car up from mine was one of three bar/lounges on this train. Continuing on toward the rear of the train, I passed through a dining car, then a kitchen car, then another dining/lounge car followed by more sleeper cars. I took pictures of them all except the sleepers. It’s worth noting here that when it comes to taking pictures of the inside of railroad cars, the best time to do so is when the train isn’t moving.

    [​IMG]
    Premier Classe Lounge Car

    [​IMG]
    Premier Classe Lounge Car Bar

    It didn’t take long however before long the train actually was moving. What impressed me was how smoothly we pulled out of the station, without the usual loud jolt that so often accompanies train departures. Shortly afterward a steward came my car requesting that all passengers meet in the lounge car for welcome cocktails, snacks and information about the journey ahead. I arrived in the lounge to find each table set with a plate of mixed nuts, potato chips and biltong jerky. Lounge attendants served sparkling wine, orange juice or water. Soon, the on-board train director introduced himself and his staff and then explained the meal times as well as lounge car locations and operation. His announcement that there was even a special lounge car dedicated to smokers set off a small but sustained round of applause.

    [​IMG]
    Premier Classe Lounge set for Afternoon Welcome

    [​IMG]
    Premier Classe Dining Car

    I was sharing a table with a South African couple who were riding the train to Cape Town and then driving back to Johannesburg. Their car was in a special car carrier attached to the rear of the train. Later we were joined by a retired American couple who were meeting up with a group of RV enthusiasts in Cape Town, thereafter to spend the next four weeks motoring around South Africa in motor homes.

    My plans, by comparison, were not nearly so grandiose. Once we’d arrived in Cape Town, I’d be catching a bus up the coast to the beautiful resort community of Mossel Bay, there to check into a five car train that had been converted into a hotel, complete with restaurant and bar. Located just 30 meters off the famous Santos Beach, it was also one of the most affordable accommodations in town with single train car rooms starting at the equivalent of just $20.00 USD per night. Judging by the politely muted reactions while I unabashedly touted the highlights of the Santos Express Lodge, I got the sense that most everyone else would be staying in considerably more upscale accommodations. Indeed, it was pretty clear that I was, as usual, the only backpacker on the train. Believe me – it’s real easy to tell. We’re like a different tribe and we recognize our members whether they’re wearing a backpack or not. Although many of us tend to keep to our roots more often than not, I’ve always marched to my own beat. First Class today, hitchhiking tomorrow… It’s all good.

    The first three hours of the trip were spent rolling through the gently rolling hills and pretty suburbs west of Johannesburg. Our dining car steward stopped by to make table assignments while I was chatting with a Cape Town lady traveling with her sister and 92 year old father. I ended up sharing a table for dinner with them. The father had grown up in Johannesburg before moving to Cape Town and remodeling his new house at the age of 75. He had some great stories of life in the Johannesburg suburbs in the 1950s through the 1980s. The sister had once managed a travel agency and had travelled all over the world. I used to manage a travel agency myself and have also found time for a bit of travel on the side. We had some great dinner conversation as well as a couple bottles of pretty good South African wine. The waiters and waitresses did an excellent job throughout the meal, graciously serving each course and refilling drinks as needed.

    [​IMG]
    Dinner Menu
     
  15. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    After dinner we retired to the lounge and I started in on the $2.00 Windhoek Lagers. I was surprised to encounter three more Americans on this train, as well as a couple from Canada. Most of the non-Africans I’ve met have been from Europe. Everyone had some pretty cool travels either coming up or already undertaken. The beer flowed and the interaction was good. By the time I called it a night and returned to my compartment, it was just after 11:00pm.

    I’ve always considered one of life’s great travel experiences to be sleeping in a bed on a train. Arriving back at my compartment, I found that my bed had already been made up with sheets and a duvet. In the classic manner, the top sheet had been folded back and a chocolate mint placed on the pillow. The sheets were crisp and cool. I read for about a half hour and then fell asleep easily to the rhythm of the rails.

    [​IMG]
    A comfortable bed awaits on Premier Classe

    A knock on the door awoke me the next morning at 7:00am. Ahh, my wake up call. I put on my robe and padded down to the shower room which thankfully became available after just a short wait. The shower stall was quite spacious, there was plenty of hot water and the water pressure was also surprisingly good. When I presented myself in the dining car a half hour later, I was primed for the new day.

    Breakfast is a casual affair on Premier Classe trains. It’s served between 7 and 9AM – just come on into the dining car whenever you’re ready. There were plenty of tables available, so I grabbed a single one and accepted a cup of coffee and some orange juice from the hostess while perusing the breakfast menu:

    BREAKFAST

    Selection of Chilled Fruit Juices
    Assorted Yogurts
    Assorted Cereals ~ Served with hot or cold milk

    Eggs To Order
    Grilled Bacon
    Champagne Beef Chipolatas

    Muffins, Croissants, Toast, Preserves

    Tea or Coffee



    A small bowl of yogurt got me started, followed by a plate of fried eggs with all the trimmings. It’s weird but I never eat like this at home. Breakfast is usually fruit, muesli and yogurt. Somehow I’ve got this mindset that a cooked breakfast is something special, especially while travelling. As such, I’ll rarely ever order the often healthier and more sensible choice of fruit and yogurt.

    Out my window rolled the sparse, barren landscape of the Great Karoo, a semiarid plateau covering over 150,000 square miles of west central South Africa. The low rolling hills are dry and brown, dominated by low scrub vegetation. We spent the entire morning rolling in air conditioned comfort through this hot and dry country, finally reaching at its boundary as we pulled into the town of Worcester.

    [​IMG]
    Rolling through the Great Karoo

    My dinner companions from the night before were disembarking at Worcester, so I took a moment to step outside and wish them well. From Worcester on into Cape Town, the track is electrified and so the train spent about thirty minutes changing from pure diesel over to diesel-electric engines. The outside temperature felt well over 30°C and after about ten minutes I stepped back into the air-conditioned ecstasy of the train.

    We were running about 45 minutes late and so luncheon was served as we departed Worcester. The three hour journey from Worcester into Cape Town is perhaps the prettiest part of the journey. It is dominated by magnificent mountains and verdant valleys accented by quaint towns and vast vineyards.

    [​IMG]
    Mountains and valleys outside Cape Town

    I made a mental note to look into accommodations and access as I know I’d like to take some time to visit this area someday. My luncheon companions were the couple from Alabama who were looking forward to the month long motor home excursion around South Africa. Motor homes are not inexpensive to rent and, coupled with the rising gas prices of late, this will be an expensive trip for them. Indeed, they both agreed that their future travels might have to be temporarily curtailed after this trip.

    It may have been the quality tracks or perhaps even a slight tailwind but somehow we made up 30 minutes and rolled into Cape Town just 15 minutes late. It was a gorgeous late summer afternoon and everyone aboard seemed ready to go out and seize the day. Porters loaded our luggage onto wagons and delivered it to the Premier Classe lounge inside the station. So longs and fare wells were the order of the day as we stepped off the train, some returning home, others just starting their adventures.

    My journey started six days ago and now, after 17,500 miles of First Class travel, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up. And indeed I am as I hoisted my pack and stepped out into the hot sunny afternoon. From -23°F Fairbanks to 27°C Cape Town, it’s been a great trip!
     
    Circumknowitall, gba, Chimpy and 6 others like this.
  16. joanek
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    joanek Silver Member

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    i always have a few friends playing springfest, haven't checked the schedule to see who'll be there this year, but I think jim lauderdale and danny barnes are among them. i spent an afternoon with jesse mcreynolds a couple of weeks ago---I do know he'll be there--check out his set if you get a chance.
     
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  17. Mangy
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    Mangy Gold Member

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    Great trip report (in all aspects). Much appreciated.
     
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  18. Absolutely awesome TR. Same high standard as always. I spotted this posting earlier in the week but 'saved' it until the weekend so I could read it in peace and do it justice.

    Bravo!
     
  19. Bonnie
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    Bonnie Silver Member

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    Fantastic trip report! Thanks so much! My only problem is that I began reading your report when I was hungry. Your food photos had me drooling!
     
  20. calvinoeh
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    calvinoeh Milepoint Guide

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    Thanks for sharing! Good Trip report.
     
  21. Denali Flyer
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    Denali Flyer Silver Member

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    Thanks everyone for your comments. I'm humbled that such a well travelled group as yourselves find my literary ramblings worthy of your time. Thanks again!

    Jim Lauderdale was there, and I saw a very nice set from Danny Barnes. One of the better moments though came when he, Josh Pinkham and Drew Emmitt joined Larry Keel and Natural Bridge for some great jammin' at the end of their set. Three nice days along the Suwannee ~ I'll be back next year!
     
  22. joanek
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    joanek Silver Member

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    Good to hear---I'll pass that along, he'll love to know.
     
  23. ducster
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    ducster Gold Member

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    Absolutely remarkable trip report. I loved all of it, and especially the train report, of which we don't see many. Thanks for posting!
     
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  24. kiwi
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    kiwi Gold Member

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    Was it better than ham and eggs in Carolina?
     

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