Suites, Treats, and Eats: a Malaysian Mileage Thanksgiving

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  1. gleff
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    I’m back from Malaysia where I added a few days to the front end of the Thanksgiving holiday.
    Outbound was in Cathay Pacific first class, return in Korean Airlines first class. I stayed at the Grand Hyatt and at the Intercontinental in Kuala Lumpur, suites in each, and at Starwood’s The Andaman in Langkawi in a seaview suite. The bulk of the room nights were on points, the transpacific flights were on points, and I thought I’d share my observations from booking to enjoyment of the trip.
    I write occasional trip reports for several reasons.

    • They’re a great opportunity to share how I put my mileage hobby into practice. Plenty of readers have told me that one of the most useful things that I do is write about my thinking processes — how I go about redeeming awards, thinking about tradeoffs, putting the miles and points lessons into practice. Using real world personal examples can be the best way to do that.

    • To show some of the possibilities for using miles and points, some folks have told me that the reports inspire them to earn more points and make their own aspirational trips. And they put my money where my mouth is with respect to the value of miles and points and what’s possible. These trips aren’t for everyone, either based on personal preferences (what you value in travel) or circumstances (many families with young children for instance will travel verydifferently than I will).

    • Not than I’m an expert on any of the particular things that I’m doing, but I spend a good bit of time researching my own travel plans, so I can pass along some distilled advice on what to expect, how to navigate, or what to do or not to do (based on my own idiosyncratic preferences) on a given trip.

    • Because reviews in pictures and prose can be useful resources to some folks considering specific hotel properties or deciding between different airline products.

    • And ultimately because it’s my own personal blog, and as I’ve done for the past decade I’m sharing my own experiences.
    So hopefully you’ll enjoy reading, coming with me on my recent Thanksgiving travels, and I’ll be able to offer some advice, some insights, or even share some mistakes that you can laugh at along the way.
    Here’s what I have in mind for this year’s Thanksgiving trip.

    1. Introduction: Constructing — and Re-constructing — the Award Trip
    2. American Eagle DC – New York and the New Nicest JFK Airport Hotel, the Hilton
    3. Cathay Pacific First Class, JFK – Hong Kong
    4. The Wing lounge in Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Kuala Lumpur
    5. Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
    6. Malaysia Airlines Business Class, Kuala Lumpur – Langkawi
    7. The Andaman Langkawi
    8. Malaysia Airlines Business Class, Langkawi – Kuala Lumpur
    9. Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur
    10. Things to See and Do in Kuala Lumpur
    11. Korean Airlines First Class, Kuala Lumpur – Seoul and the Korean Airlines First Class Lounge Seoul
    12. Korean Airlines First Class, Seoul – Washington Dulles
    I find that Thanksgiving is a great time to travel internationally. Adding a few days onto the trip works well, too. The days leading up to Thanksgiving are pretty dead in the office as people begin leaving town for the holidays. But most importantly try getting any work done that involves making progress on projects with anyone outside the office?

    Last Thanksgiving I went to Thailand for a mistake rate (cash and points awards available for all room types) at the Conrad Bangkok and to check out the newly-opened Conrad Koh Samui Resort. The Thanksgiving before that it was Mumbai (I wanted to have Thanksgiving dinner with Indians). And the Thanksgiving prior to that was Paris, for the Prince de Galles 52 euro per night (90% discount) mistake rate.

    This year it was going to be Malaysia, albeit just a brief visit. For all of my travels in Asia, I’d never been to Malaysia. And I’ve been meaning to go since The Andaman resort joined Starwood, and one of my favorite hotel G.M.s moved over there to run the place.

    I started planning the trip by looking for first class award availability on Cathay Pacific. As recently as four years ago Cathay Pacific awards were almost non-existent in first class, and then come 2009 there was a thawing .. initially just on their Toronto flight and usually on Tuesdays, but then space opened up across the board. I’m not sure what happened exactly except that there was certainly a drop in premium cabin travel during the Great Recession, and selling award seats including to members of partner airline programs does generate incremental revenue. As a result I’ve flown Cathay first class many times over the past three years.

    For a few moments I considered taking a different approach for the award tickets, after all how exciting is it to try the same first class product — and even the same flight — over and over again? And don’t I owe a little bit more variety to my faithful readers? [​IMG]

    But the product is really good. I love the seat especially, it’s one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. It’s wide enough for two people to sit down next to each other. The ottoman turns into a buddy seat (with seatbelt) and the flight attendants install a table extender so that two people can sit across from each other and dine as though in a restaurant. And with plenty of advance booking it’s easy enough to get that connections wind up lining up perfectly. (I find that when the schedule loads most gateways have first class award space, that space is still pretty good six months out; closer in is harder but a week out there’s more and then a couple of days before departure pretty much most of the empty seats in a given cabin become bookable as awards — that makes the awards pretty changeable as well.)

    What I set up was quite simple: Washington National – New York JFK – Hong Kong – Kuala Lumpur / Kuala Lumpur – Hong Kong – New York JFK (stopover) – Los Angeles.

    I was adding a free stopover to an American Airlines partner award in New York. I booked a New York – Los Angeles segment in American’s 3-class Flagship first class that I was going to use later (likely changing the date for a time I’d need it). Then I would have purchased my flight from New York back home to DC.

    A funny thing happened between the time I booked the award and when I was actually scheduled to travel, though. Cathay Pacific cancelled one of their New York – Hong Kong flights. The one that I was using for my award. In both directions. They rebooked me onto their one-stop direct in both cases, the one that makes a stop in Vancouver. That cut down my connection in New York on the outbound, which I was going to be a bit nervous about (too much of a delay on American Eagle coming into New York airspace and I could misconnect for the start of my trip). And gave me a really long connection on the return — plus I didn’t relish that Vancouver stop, arriving off of an overnight flight from Hong Kong, sitting around a holding pen for an hour, and then taking another redeye to New York. It meant I would have four flights in each direction as well, something I try to avoid especially on a short trip.

    I managed to re-book myself onto the morning JFK – Hong Kong flight, I still decided to fly up to New York the night before and just spend the night at an airport hotel. That way I would start the trip fresh and have only one connection in a day. And I knew I wouldn’t miss the Cathay flight because of delays into New York.
    For the return though there was nothing especially desirable open. I could double connect
    after arriving in San Francisco if I’d wanted to. The Vancouver option sounded better than two domestic flights on American. And I wasn’t going to have any luck getting American to get Cathay to open up revenue inventory to accommodate me on a different flight when I already had Cathay first class on the flight that most closely approximated my original times, the only difference being that this one was ‘direct’ rather than ‘non-stop.’

    So I decided to keep my Cathay Pacific outbound, and do something a bit different for the return.

    It was two months out from travel that I decided to look at alternatives and I noticed that Korean Airlines had first class award space coming back Kuala Lumpur – Seoul – New York JFK (on the Airbus A380) or Kuala Lumpur – Seoul – Washington Dulles (on the 777). Arriving home the Sunday after Thanksgiving. That’s great, I could try a new product (albeit one not generally as well-regarded as Cathay) and get either a one-stop (back to DC) or an A380. I thought quite a bit about which option to choose, and ultimately decided to forego the A380 and just arrive directly back home in DC. The idea of an extra stop, clearing immigration in New York, then changing terminals and re-clearing security on the Sunday after Thanksgiving just didn’t really appeal.

    So I verified the Korean award space, transferred points over from Chase Ultimate Rewards, and got the tickets issued. (Redeeming awards on Korean is a bit of a strange process, involving scanners and fax machines.)

    I booked my outbound airport hotel at the Hilton, having previously tried the Hilton Garden Inn (at the time the best option near JFK, sadly) and more recently the Sheraton (disappointing, but again at the time the best JFK option). I booked myself into the brand new Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur for one night on arrival in Malaysia, and the Intercontinental on the back end for two nights because of a super-cheap rate and the ability to pre-confirm an upgrade. And I booked the Andaman. And the trip was pretty much set…
     
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  2. gleff
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    I arrived at Washington National airport about 90 minutes out for the 7:25pm American Eagle flight up to New York JFK. The place was mostly deserted, I walked up to the counters to check in luggage (haven’t checked a bag in 9 months). There were four or five people in the premium line, with an agent standing around not doing much in the bag drop line, so I checked in using the kiosk and was called up to tag the luggage.

    The setup at DCA is that you check your bags, and then you take your bags back (once tagged) over to the TSA yourself. I’m not sure what good showing your ID does when getting a bag tag since the bags are back in your possession between getting those tags and turning the luggage over to security. But I try not to think about the inanity of the processes too much.

    Security was short, even with only two of three lanes open. When I took off my shoes to go through screening I realized something amazingly stupid. I was wearing two different non-matching shoes. They’re similar in style, just different colors. This. Was going to be. A problem. Because they were the only ‘nice’ shoes I brought with me on the trip. I had a pair of gym shoes and a pair of sandals for the beach. As I puzzled through this I continued through security.

    Once on the other side (and after my opt-out pat down) I decided this wasn’t going to work. I wanted to have some nicer shoes with me in case I went out to dinner in Kuala Lumpur at a minimum. Ten days with only gym shoes and flip flops was beginning to worry me a bit, so I walked back out of security.

    The great thing about being at your home airport is that you know all of the shopping options. Not because you every go into the stores, but passing by them enough times, they’re committed to memory subconsciously. I’m not sure I knew that there was a Johnston & Murphy shoe store between the American Airlines pier and the far US Airways one, but as soon as I needed shoes I realized it right away. So I walked over to the shoe store, picked out a pair of shoes that I would wear anyway, and went back through security.

    This time the checkpoint was down to just a single lane and things were moving a bit more slowly. But I was still over to the gate a few minutes prior to the commencement of boarding.

    The flight itself was completely uneventful. We pushed back on time, and did pull off the active taxiway for a short bit into the holding area. The captain didn’t even come on to tell us what the delay was going to be, it was less than five minutes, and we were on our way.
    We arrived early at JFK, waited a brief while on the jetway to collect the ‘valet service’ carry ons, then proceeded to baggage claim to pick up checked bags. Then it was on to the airport Hilton.

    Check-in at the Hilton JFK was smooth.

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    Diamond status was recognized, although I wasn’t given any sort of an upgrade. The club lounge stops serving at 9pm, so the check-in clerk gave me coupons for free appetizers from the bar. It was appreciated and certainly above and beyond what’s required by the program. (Though I decided to head straight up to the room to get some sleep, I didn’t use the certificates.)

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    I was also given a bag with a bottle of water, fruit, and a chocolate. I’m not sure why the gift bag, but I’ll take the bottled water from a hotel any time — especially one without a club as getting access to water is about the last thing I want to deal with on arrival, I used to bring some in my carryon but since the War On Water(tm) that’s not so easily accomplished (I’ll frequently pick up a bottle at a newsstand in the terminal before heading to my hotel, just to be prepared).

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  3. gleff
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    With the shuttle to the airport running every 30 minutes I decided that for my 9am flight I would catch the 7am over to the airport. Flying first class and with a premium security line there shouldn’t have been any problem catching the 7:30am, but I didn’t see any reason not to plan for the 7. With that in mind, I went straight up to the room.

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    I woke up around 5:30am. That happened to be the time that the coffee shop in the lobby opens, or at least was supposed to, there was an employee there but she said she wasn’t going to be open for awhile since she had just arrived and planned to spend time setting up.

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  4. gleff
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    The lounge space opened at 6 and offered a nice space, though a somewhat sparse food spread. They promise continental breakfast and that’s exactly what they deliver – without any ‘plus’ items like smoked salmon. I decided just to grab a coffee, head back downstairs to get ready for the day, figuring that I could grab a bit in the lounge and that there’d be plenty to eat onboard anyway.

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  5. gleff
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    I grabbed the shuttle to the airport as planned, turning up at about 6:55am. The desk had assured that I wouldn’t need to worry about space on the bus, they said they have 3 shuttles and would send another one if the first one filled up. I wasn’t sure I believed the promise, but I knew I had plenty of buffer.

    After a quick one night stay I decided that this in indeed the best hotel at the moment at JFK. That follows Joe Brancatelli’s advice on airport hotel’s — just book the newest full service property. And this is a complete redo of an older property, the most recent renovation by the airport which has never really offered reasonable accommodations. Unless and until there’s a newer property, this will be my go to hotel for JFK airport overnights, although under other circumstances the hotel would be unmemorable at best.
     
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  6. gleff
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    The Hilton’s bus dropped of on the lower level of terminal 7, so we went inside and up to ticketing and check-in.

    The primary occupant of terminal 7 is British Airways but it’s also the United Airlines terminal. BA has premium check-in all the way over on the left end of the terminal, there are couches and chairs but they’re usually empty because people usuaully just stand in line.

    Cathay Pacific is down at the end of the row of desks, with a single first class line past thee business class queue and no one was waiting. It turned out there would be only one other passenger in first class this morning.

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    Boarding passes were issued and first class lounge invitations were generated for Hong Kong. The last time I took the flight a year ago I was connecting to a business class flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok and they generated business class lounge invitations — even though the arriving first class boarding pass stubs would entitle first class lounge use. It was a system limitation, the agent couldn’t override it, but it didn’t matter. I would just use the arriving boarding pass to access the first class lounge.

    This time the system generated first class lounge invitations, presumably because I had used American Airlines miles for the tickets and my top tier elite status frequent flyer number was in the reservation — so even though I would be connecting on beyond Hong Kong in business class, my top tier status was recognized and that entitled me to the first class lounge invite.

    Not that lounge invitations matter a whit when flying an airline and using that airline’s own lounge, the boarding pass is all that matters. So I don’t entirely understand the use of such passes beyond when an airline gives you access to a contract lounge. For that matter, no lounge passes were generated for nor required for entry to the British Airways lounge we’d be using this morning.

    After receiving boarding passes and checking a bag we proceeded through security. The premium check-in area has a single premium security line which is always short in my experience, and has no nude-o-scope.

    The Concorde Room is near the security queue and that’s the lounge that British Airways first class passengers use. We wouldn’t have access to it this morning. Cathay Pacific uses the BA lounges in terminal 7, with Cathay’s first class passengers using the BA first class lounge and business class passengers using the business side of the lounge. These lounges are upstairs near the United Red Carpet Club.

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    That’s a strange situation in a way, British Airways has a first class lounge that isn’t used by their own first class passengers. Instead in reality it’s a top tier frequent flyer lounge. Arguably it’s somewhat better than the business side, though not much, there’s some seating always available but it’s reasonably crowded whenever I’ve been there (it was quite full when I arrived, presumably with passengers on the British Airways 8:30am flight to London, and then cleared out for the last half hour I spent there). The food offerings are limited, while there was smoked salmon there were no hot items available for breakfast.

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  7. gleff
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    I had a mini-bagel just to put something in my stomach, I hadn’t eaten breakfast in the lounge before leaving the hotel. Downloading and answering a few last emails before a 16 hour journey to Hong Kong without connectivity, I quickly burned through the remaining time until boarding and headed over to the gate.

    Once onboard, a welcome drink was offered, amenity kits and pajamas distributed.
    The Cathay first class cabin is hardly new anymore but the seats are holding up well. And I’ve flown it so many times that it just feels comfortable and familiar. Walking into the first class cabin is ‘home’ in the sky.

    Notable to me is that it remains my favorite cabin for pre-departure, I can easily stand up, lean on the top of the seat, it just feels natural. Almost any other cabin and doing anything other than sitting in your seat is just awkward.

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    My favorite thing about the seat itself is that it’s comfortable for both sleeping and lounging. Some are good for one or the other. It’s certainly wide, some feel that it’s too wide though you can put an armrest down to make it seem narrower. It just feels so darned spacious, and to me that makes it feels a lot more like being at home on a couch than being in an airplane seat which makes it relaxing.

    What I don’t especially like, though, is the 9am departure time. Two reasons:

    • Assuming I’ve slept the night before, I’m just not going to sleep much of the flight. I’ll be arriving in Hong Kong around midnight in the my time zone of departure. In other words, I’ll be ready to sleepjust as the flight is ending.
    • Breakfast. I love Cathay Pacific’s breakfast. It’s one of my favorite airline breakfasts, and breakfast says a lot about an airline. Fresh eggs, dim sum, high quality preserves. But I like my breakfast as the second meal rather than the first, because it’s comfort food and that’s what I want well into the flight. I’d rather have a ‘more formal’ meal shortly after takeoff. The 9am departure reverses this.
    Shortly after takeoff I had a look inside at the contents of the amenity kit.

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    Menus were distributed and brunch options read as follows:

    Starters
    Orange or apple juice
    Mango energiser
    Fresh seasonal fruit
    Natural or mixed fruit Greek yoghurt
    Assorted cereals

    Main courses
    Free range eggs-freshly scrambled, fried or boiled
    served with your choice of home fried potatoes, grilled pork sausage, streaky bacon, grilled tomato or sauteed mushrooms
    Assorted Chinese dim sum
    Abalone and Chinese mushroom congee, served with steams prawn rice roll and imperial soy sauce

    Bread basket
    Assorted breakfast bread and fresh toast
    served with Mrs. Bridges Scottish preserves, Tasmanian meadow honey and butter

    Tea and coffee

    Pralines


    Traveling with someone else, Cathay’s seats aren’t really conducive to interacting inflight. Sure they’re wide enough that two people can sit down beside each other. And while there aren’t any doors, they’re enclosed enough that when sitting down you can’t see other passengers at all regardless of where they’re seated.

    On the 777 some people like seats 1A and 2A, one in front of the other, because you have the whole side of the cabin to yourself (since the middle seats all open away from you, and towards the seats on the right side of the aircraft). Others prefer the middle and aisle on the other side of the plane, because the seats do open towards each other. But in any case, no real ‘couple’ seats.

    But one neat thing about Cathay, when traveling together, is that the suite’s ottoman has a seatbelt and it’s wide enough that someone can come over and sit down on it. Flight attendants will install a table extender onto the meal tray if asked, then it’s easy for two people to sit across from each other and take their meal together, dining as though in a restaurant.

    For my meal I went for the dim sum (I really like the chili sauce that Cathay uses) and for the eggs, freshly prepared. And the preserves are so good I look forward to them.

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  8. gleff
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    After the meal a flight attendant brought over some truffles and a service survey (I like getting them for the airline pens, though this time I didn’t actually fill it out, and the $5 duty free discount that comes with the survey isn’t all that much of an incentive).

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  9. gleff
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    After the meal I went into the lavatory to change into my pajamas.

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    There are two restrooms in first class on the 777. The one of the left hand side is oversized, and more stylish, the one on the right is smaller. It’s a great restroom-to-passenger ratio, especially with the cabin only 3/6 full. The two flight attendants for three passengers is great as well…

    Upon returning to my seat I placed my clothes (which I had put on a hanger given to me by a flight attendant as I entered the restroom) into my seat’s closet. The first class cabin has no overhead bins, which gives it an especially airy and open feel. Instead there’s a closet which will fit most carryons and additionally a laptop bag, though my laptop bag was stored underneath the ottoman of my seat. What the closet won’t fit though is a widebody carryon, at least not easily, and once in the past when carrying the wider bag I had to have a flight attendant store it rather than keeping it by my seat. Knowing I’d be flying Cathay first, I didn’t take that bag as my carryon for this trip.

    I asked to have my bed made up, and they did that for me promptly.

    The mattress pad has holes to put the seatbelt through.

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    On top of the mattress pad is a duvet.

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    It makes for a comfortable bed, which can also be comfortable to leave halfway reclined for relaxing and watching tv.

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    Since I wasn’t tired, I watched several shows, both things off of my laptop as well as the extensive ‘StudioCX’ system.

    Off the inflight entertainment I watched The Newsroom‘s first season, which I had been meaning to catch but hadn’t gotten around to and also Magic Citywhich I had also already downloaded onto my laptop to see. I also caught up on the current season of Walking Dead which I had brought onboard.

    Midway through the flight — meaning about 7 hours since I had eaten — I decided I wanted something for a snack so I called on a flight attendant.

    Inflight service was great, but what’s important to know (especially for someone used to either domestic US airlines or to Singapore at the other extreme) is that typical Cathay service means that they mostly they leave you alone and wait to be called. They stay out of the cabin and try not to disturb you. Which means that when you want something you need to ring your call button. This isn’t a hallmark of bad service, they want you to let them know when they can be of assistance in any way. But if you don’t know this you might think they’re never available to you which couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Here’s the snack menu:

    Warm reuben sandwich with mesclun salad
    Brie cheese with yellow peppers and chives on multi-grain corn spitz roll and mesclun salad
    Wontons in noodle soup
    Hot pot rice with cured meats, served with chicken broth
    Ice cream



     
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  10. gleff
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    I rang my call button and ordered the hot pot, and asked for wontons added into my chicken broth. [​IMG]

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    A couple of hours of napping, a bit more television, and it was nearly 90 minutes out from arrival so I took my lunch. That menu was as follows:

    Caviar and Fine Smoked Salmon
    Caviar and fine smoked salmon

    International Favourites
    Curried parsnip cream soup
    Lobster and mango salad with lemon olive oil dressing
    Pan seated USDA prime beef tenderloin with sauteed spinach, roasted pumpkin and kipfler potatoes, thyme jus and bearnaise sauce
    or
    Riocotta ravioli with cherry tomato ragout and arugula

    Chinese Favourites
    Double boil quail with Chinese yam soup
    Cold plate – marinated gluten with dried mushroom
    Stir fried seafood in X.O. sauce
    or
    Stir fried chicke with black bean sauce
    served with steamed jasmine rice, stir-fried pak choy, black bushroom and carrot flower

    Cheese and Dessert
    Cambozola, Taleggio, Manchego, Chaurnes
    Fresh berries with cream
    Raspberry crumble with chocolate ice cream and vanilla sauce
    Red bean soup with lotus seeds

    Tea and coffee

    Pralines


    I started with the caviar, had some of the lobster and mango salad, and then the stir fried seafood and cold plate.

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    That was plenty, so no dessert, though I was disappointed not to try the red bean soup.
    After lunch I changed out of my PJs and back into my clothes, settled in to read for about half an hour along with a couple of cups of coffee, and soon enough we had touch down in Hong Kong and a quick taxi to the gate.
     
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  11. gleff
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    Hong Kong’s airport is almost always a long walk on arrival. You come in on the lower level and either proceed to immigration or to transfer security. Shoes don’t have to come off, there’s no liquid rule (which is why flights on US airlines and flights to the US require a separate liquid check at the gate — always annoying because you cannot buy a bottle of water at the airport and take it on the plane, I would hate to be flying economy from Hong Kong to the US without the ability to bring my own water onboard). Laptop does come out though, and my ‘TSA appoved’ laptop bag does me no good here.

    Then it’s up the escalator to the departures level. Cathay Pacific’s primary lounges are the Pier (near gates in the 60s) and the Wing (near gate 5). In this case I’d be leaving for Kuala Lumpur from a gate near the Wing, so that’s the lounge I headed towards. I’ve always liked the Wing better than the Pier because the Pier is one floor below departures.
    The Wing has a better view of airport operations, and upstairs gives you a view into the terminal itself.

    But the Wing has been in the midst of renovations, the business class side is done but the first class side is currently pretty limited with food available only in the business portion of the lounge (noodle bar, small buffet). I decided just to use the business class lounge, as long as there’s seating it’s perfectly convenient and really quite good post-renovation (and it wasn’t terrible before the renovation).

    The first class side really has needed work done to bring it up to standard. They’re getting rid of the ‘library’ which was underutilized space. They’re turning the dining area into menu service and no longer just buffet. And they’re renovating ‘the cabanas’ shower rooms. It’ll be great to see what the place looks like come February when they’re supposed to finish.

    In the meantime, the business class side it was for this visit.

    Reception for the business class side is on the departures level (the first class lounge has an entrance one level up, just a quick left turn past immigration, but can also be accessed via the departures level by taking the elevator up).

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    I took a shower and the shower rooms are great.

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  12. gleff
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    After freshening up I had a seat near the buffet and windows looking out over the tarmac.

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    I wasn’t hungry though so I just grabbed some water, I had eaten plenty on the plane and knew I’d be getting a meal on my next flight as well.

    I had about 45 minutes available at this point to catch up on email that had accumulated since taking off from New York. It was a business day, so I played some quick triage, and soon enough it was time to board my flight to Kuala Lumpur.

    Of course ‘time to board’ in Asia doesn’t mean when the monitor says the flight is boarding. Rather, it means ‘wait until the monitor says last call and then start heading over to the gate.’ I could see flights show up as boarding that weren’t taking off for an hour. It’s strange every time I’m in Hong Kong on Bangkok especially to see flights supposedly boarding so early when usually they’re not, but still directing people to the gate. I don’t go off of the flight status (unless the status is ‘delayed’), but my watch instead, and in this case I knew I was about a 5 minute walk to the gate and I certainly didn’t need to be onboard more than 20 minutes prior to departure.

    When I made it to the gate there was a long line of coach passengers waiting to board and no one queued for business class. So I walked right up on got on the plane, one of the earlier business class passengers to do so. Over the next 15 minutes the cabin filled up until it was completely full.

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  13. gleff
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    [​IMG]

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    This flight featured Cathay’s standard regional business class product, which is certainly fine for a flight that’s under 4 hours. It’s a bit better than what US airlines offer domestically, closer to old recliner-style international business class. But it’s certainly not a market leader. Cathay will begin retrofitting their intra-Asia fleet with a new business class through 2013 and 2014, although even that represents only a marginal improvement. Nothing wrong with the product, certainly not as good as what Singapore offers, but perfectly fine.

    I watched an episode of Magic City, ate, and napped, and that pretty much took up the entire flight.

    The menu for the evening was:

    Starter
    Fresh seasonal fruit

    Main Courses
    Steamed black cod with wood ear mushroom and preserved vegetables, steamed jasmine rice and stir fried choy sum
    Grilled Australian prime beef with onion and mustard sauce, roasted new potatoes, carrot and asparagus
    Roasted duck in rice vermicelli soup

    Dessert
    Ice cream
    Tea and coffee


    A flight attendant came up to me prior to taking meal orders, even though I was on an award ticket he acknowledge my Oneworld Emerald status and wanted to ensure I got my first choice of meals so took my order first in the cabin.

    I had the beef, and immediately after ordering regretted not asking for the roasted duck soup. The meal was fine but I was so tired I didn’t snap any photos.

    We were on the ground about 20 minutes late, deplaned, and made the short walk through the terminal to the train from the satellite gates to passport control and baggage claim.
    There were only a few people ahead of us, we cleared quickly, baggage was already up and once through a representative with a Grand Hyatt sign was waiting immediately upon entering the arrivals hall.
     
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  14. gleff
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    As we exited baggage claim a representative from the Grand Hyatt was one of the first ones spotted, with my name on a sign. I identified myself and he handed us over to our driver for the 50 minute trip to the hotel.

    Since it was my first time in Malaysia, and I’d be arriving at night after about 22 hours of traveling, I opted for the ease of a hotel pickup. I also wanted to see whether the new Grand Hyatt would execute it well. A hotel airport pickup isn’t just about a representative meeting you in the arrivals hall. It’s about the hand off on arrival at the property itself. It’s an important test, for me, of a top shelf hotel property.

    When you’re picked up from the airport in a hotel car, the hotel should know who you are when you walk in the door. Ideally the driver should signal ahead when you’re almost on property, and the staff should greet you by name and be prepared for your check-in.

    And that’s something that the Grand Hyatt did well. Our car pulled up, staff greeted it and removed bags, and I was met by a manager who knew my name and escorted me upstairs to do in-room check-in.

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    That’s also a really great feature after a long flight. I don’t want to stand up at a desk while a staff member slowly keys things into a computer and disappears to make photocopies of documents. And I don’t want to walk up to a front desk only to be told I’m in the wrong place to check in, they think they’re being helpful and honoring my arrival by escorting me up to the club lounge for check-in but now I’m just unnecessarily trekking through the hotel when I just want to go to my room.

    After what’s at this point more than 24 hours since I had left my hotel in New York, I was grateful to go straight up to my room.

    Well, not straight up. This hotel is built as the top floors of a new high rise, and you take one elevator from the ground level up to the top floor reception area, and then change elevators to go down a few floors to the room.

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    It was a one-night stay, the hotel brand new (having just been open two months) so occupancy wasn’t particularly high. And I was given a suite upgrade for my 14 hours on property, even though I hadn’t used a confirmed suite upgrade certificate. It was a gorgeous suite.
     
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  15. gleff
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    The room had floor to ceiling glass windows looking out over Kuala Lumpur, and a direct view of the Petronas Twin Towers from the bedroom which were beautifully lit up at night.

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    There was a small bathroom in the entryway. The living room was large, with a separate desk area and comfortable seating, although not quite large enough to fit a dining table. The bathroom was huge with dual sinks, a tub, shower, and separate toilet room. There was a walk-in closet as well. Sleek, modern, with beautiful accented lighting, the suite was just sexy.

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  16. gleff
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    [​IMG]

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    This struck me as a room that I’d be thoroughly pleased with using a confirmed suite upgrade certificate (and even if I had a different view). It’s probably one of the better suites in the Hyatt chain that you’d get for a confirmed upgrade.

    My immediate reaction though was of disappointment — not in the hotel or the room, but that I would be transiting Kuala Lumpur on the way back from my stop in Langkawi, and that stay would be for two nights and not just one, and I wouldn’t be at the Grand Hyatt. I had confirmed an Ambassador suite at the Intercontinental on the cheap, and was rather pleased with myself when I did so (and it was non-cancellable), but now I was wishing that I’d booked the Grand Hyatt for both stays.

    In the morning I ran into the front office manager in the lobby and I spoke with him for a few minutes. He told me that the hotel had been at 49% occupancy the night before when I arrived (a Friday evening), and that the Saturday would be 31%. It’s a business hotel, with occupancy dropping over the weekend, and it’s a new hotel still building its business. Much of the staff are still in place from other Hyatt hotels in Asia. The manager on duty in the lounge was on loan from the Grand Hyatt Taipei.

    I asked the manager who they see as their direct competition, and he said the nearby Mandarin Oriental. That could just be spin, but if that’s their narrative they’re setting the bar high which is great.

    One modest disappointment, if I can call it that, was the club lounge. By North American standards it would trump anything in the Hyatt chain by wide margins. But it fell a little bit short, in my opinion, relative to top luxury hotels in Southeast Asia.

    • Breakfast is served 6am – 10:30am during the week and until 11am on weekends. Canapes and cocktails from 6pm to 8pm in the evenings. Interestingly that’s only two food services, rather than three that I might have expected (e.g. an afternoon tea).
    • While service was good, there could have been more choices available at breakfast (I didn’t have a chance to check out their evening offerings

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    I say that breakfast offerings were limited. There were plenty of choices. But they didn’t compare to most of the reports I’ve read on Malaysia. And the only hot items were eggs to order.

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  17. gleff
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    Still, the cold items were lovely.

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    On my short stay I had only a moment to peek at, rather than enjoy, what looked to be lovely pool and fitness areas.

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  18. gleff
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    [​IMG]
    All in all an excellent short stay, and a hotel I’d love to return to. Come noon, though, it was back to the airport for my flight to Langkawi.
     
  19. gleff
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    We were bid adieu on our way out of the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur by the same front office manager who had been on duty the night before when we arrived. No rest for the weary, getting a new luxury hotel up and running!

    It was about 45 minutes to the airport, and we were departing from the main terminal at KLIA. When I first booked the trip my plan was to buy cheap AirAsia tickets to Langkawi, they were pricing much less expensively than buying tickets on Malaysia Airlines.

    I actually had hope that prior to the trip Malaysia’s induction into oneworld would be complete and I’d be able to add the Kuala Lumpur – Langkawi segment into my existing award ticket without spending any additional miles (my Kuala Lumpur stop was less than 24 hours). But it became clear that timetable wasn’t to be.

    As luck would have it, a friend had a modest stash of expiring Malasyia Airlines Enrich miles, so he redeemed them for business class tickets. Not that the premium cabin is necessary for the scheduled 55 minute/282 mile flight.

    Our driver pulled up to the domestic end of the main terminal, we went in to find an almost deserted area with no line for check-in at the business class counters and a very short line for security. Shoes didn’t come off, no liquids out either. It was a short walk through the domestic terminal.

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    With business class boarding passes in hand we headed over to Malaysia Airlines’ domestic lounge. We were welcomed in and found a pretty threadbare place — the furnishings reminded me of the common areas at the end of the floor of my freshman year college dorm. The carpet had seen better days. This was, of course, a domestic lounge and those don’t usually get much attention even from airlines with top-line international products.

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  20. gleff
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    [​IMG]

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    The one frustration I couldn’t abide, though, was the internet: you could pick up a signal if you stayed close to the check-in desk, but couldn’t actually access the internet if you strayed more than a few feet from the desk.

    Having had breakfast in the lounge but no lunch, I checked out the buffet and there was ample hot food but I had the sense it had been sitting awhile so I decided against.

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    Since the seating wasn’t great, the food wasn’t appealing, and the internet didn’t work I decided to roam the terminal and see what else might be a better way to pass the time. There wasn’t much, so somewhat defeated I settled on Malaysian fast food for my lunch — Marrybrown’s.
     
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  21. gleff
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    [​IMG]
    After a quick bite it seemed soon enough that it would be time to head over to the gate, so I walked over in that direction. Interestingly, boarding passes and checked as you enter the gate area rather than as you get on the aircraft. So we had to show boarding passes to get in and find a seat, most of the passengers on the flight were already in the gate area but since it wasn’t a full flight there were plenty of places to settle in. It was then only 5 or 10 minutes before boarding was actually called.

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    Business class had 5 of 16 seats filled, while coach seemed perhaps two-thirds full.
    The seats up front were fairly ancient, seeming even more so because of the fabric styles. But they were perfectly comfortable for a short flight.

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  22. gleff
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    [​IMG]

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    We were greeted with a welcome drink and hot towel.

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    Once airborne a modest meal was served. I picked at the pot pie, and once it was collected the flight was about 60% complete. I read for a bit and then we descended through a decent amount of turbulence into Langkawi.

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    Deplaning was via stairs, we walked over into the terminal, picked up our bags and found a representative from the Andaman waiting for us for the half hour ride to the hotel.

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  23. gleff
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    When Starwood first took over The Andaman in Langkawi, Malaysia I was intrigued. I’d heard of the property, seen it on several ‘best’ lists (for best beaches, spa, etc). But early reports were that it had really gone downhill, that it needed significant investment.

    Then I heard that Anne Scott had taken over as General Manager and I figured the place had a shot. She was the general manager that opened the Le Meridien Chiang Rai, which I found to be a really special place when I went there a few months after opening (I’ve heard that things have slipped a bit since she left).

    One of the best pieces of advice in travel — not on the scale of usefulness of “hang up, call back” whenever you don’t get the answer you want — is to get to know your hotel general managers. Anne was very hands on during our stay in Chiang Rai, she greeted each guest on arrival whenever she was on property, and she was there to see us off when we checked out. I kept up a correspondence with her, I shared my feedback on the hotel, what I thought it did well but most especially where I thought they could make little tweaks to improve things. She was genuinely receptive. I even noticed when she won an award (“Asia’s Leading Woman in Hospitality”), dropped her a note of congratulations.

    When I considered staying at the Andaman a couple of years ago, I emailed her. I asked for her advice and she told me candidly that I shouldn’t come for a visit yet, that there was a lot of work to be done and that I’d enjoy it much more if I waited. So when I was planning a trip for Thanksgiving 2012 I e-mailed her again, and this time she told me it was worth coming. She later explained that she was better than halfway through her original list of projects (though she had since added many more) and much of the heavy lifting was complete. That was enough for me.

    And this is admittedly key: I am not a Starwood Platinum these days. The hotel doesn’t have a lot of suites, and while Platinum members definitely get upgrades a suite isn’t something to consistently expect here as an elite upgrade. I told Ms. Scott that the room would be a fairly key ingredient of enjoying my stay, I wanted to use points for the stay but there wasn’t an option to book a suite for double points. She told me just to book the base-level award and she’d ensure an upgrade. Get to know your general managers. Even if they’re at a hotel you don’t plan to return to, because they wind up at other properties down the line.

    When we arrived at the Langkawi airport there was a hotel representative waiting for us, he pointed out several things along the half hour drive to the property. When we checked in they knew to expect us, again as in Kuala Lumpur we didn’t have to identify ourselves.

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    We were brought to the check-in desk, then were escorted to a couch to finish formalities, and Ms. Scott came out to greet us. She recommended the complimentary morning rainforest walk, and told me we’d most like the open air Malay restaurant down by the water (one of three restaurants on property — open only weather-permitting — the other two are the main all-day dining room and the Japanese restaurant, though they are building a seafood restaurant by the beach).

    She’s one of the most thoughtful hotel general managers I’ve met, and by that I don’t mean “considerate” but rather “insightful.” I still recall the conversation we had about breakfast, it was the first project she undertook with the chef at the Le Meridien before they opened, her view is that people don’t take time to linger over breakfast in their daily routines so investing in thinking through how to make that meal special will go a long way towards separating a vacation from daily life.

    After check-in we were escorted to our room which was at the very far end of the property and on the third of four floors. Reception is on the top floor, and the property is built into the side of a hill so the rest of the hotel descends down to beach level. Thus we were one level below reception.

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  24. gleff
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    [​IMG]
    There was fruit in the room, and also macarons and a bottle of wine.

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    Shortly after arrival a knock came to the door and a plate of appetizers was delivered.

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    In the evening there was turndown service, and then perhaps half an hour later a delivery of chocolates.

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    The evening dessert deliveries was a real highlight of my stay at the Le Meridien Chiang Rai, every night a different chocolate dessert, so I hoped it would be one of the special touches that Anne Scott brought to the property, but there wasn’t any sort of evening delivery the rest of the stay.

    When we arrived in Malaysia the night before it was late at night, I had no problem falling asleep and slept normal local hours. But on this second day jetlag was catching up to me, largely because I slept very little on the flights across the Pacific (a function of the 9am departure time from New York). And come 6pm I was exhausted so ordered some Nasi Goreng from room service and retired early. I figured it was vacation, I’d have 5 nights here, so why not just sleep when I was tired and get up whenever I awoke?

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  25. gleff
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    Naturally asleep around 7pm I woke up early and needed some coffee. The Nespresso machine in the room wasn’t working, so I decided to call room service to have them deliver a pot. But the phone just rang and rang. So I called the front desk, and that just rang and rang. Tried again half an hour later, same thing. Half an hour after that and room service picked up. I told them what I wanted, they said someone would call me back to confirm. About 20 minutes later I got a call back and was told that it would take 20 minutes for coffee to be delivered. They brought coffee, and packaged creamer. I asked for fresh cream, the employee delivering the coffee went away and I got a phone call. I explained I wanted fresh cream, she said she would call back, and a few minutes later I had a call explaining that room service had only packaged creamers. It took me two hours, but I had coffee, and I had packaged creamer. Fortunately the coffee routine would get smoother from there.

    In-room internet was excruciatingly slow. I couldn’t get a consistent signal at all in the bedroom, but it was workable from the living room (although in-room internet went down for about 24 hours during the stay and was available only in the business center).

    The room was kept up well but far from modern. Some of the furniture in the room didn’t match. The couch was too small for two people to sit on, so there should definitely have been a larger couch or couch and a comfy chair, as it was a second person in the living room needed to use a dining chair.

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    My other room complaint was that there was a family with two young daughters in the room above me for part of the stay, and I could hear a banging noise from above as the children ran around. If noise is an issue to you, it’s advisable to ask for a room on the fourth floor so that no one is above.

    The staff, though, are much friendlier and far superior to the physical plant and furnishings. The waitress we had each morning in the restaurant tried hard to figure out my coffee preferences on the first day and she had everything organized for me starting on second visit. The coffee in the restaurant wasn’t very good — it tasted burned, though perhaps it’s the coffee they use since even the cappuccino and espresso had remnants of that flavoring (maybe they overheat the shots of espresso?). But cappuccinos each morning worked. And that was always after coffee from the Nespresso machine (which we had them replace on the second day).

    I spent a good bit of time sitting out on the balcony reading, looking out over the beach and the sea. No one ever bothered me while I was out there but it’s important not to leave the balcony door open. As you’re advised by a decal on the sliding glass door, always leave the balcony doors locked or else the monkeys will come in in search of food. I didn’t see monkeys for the first two days on property and started to think it was all a ruse, but afterwards it seemed as though they were everywhere.

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