Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Christmas Cards

Starting to spread the Christmas Cheer.....

Today I'll be dropping off the first of my cards at a couple of different locations for sale! Long in the making, they have finally come together and I already have several different places that will be selling them for me. 
The design is something a little different - nothing I've ever seen before here on St. Croix so I'm looking forward to see what the community will think.. 

(P.S - I'm not revealing anymore of the design as you see here because chances are if you're reading this, you'll be getting one in the mail too)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lederhosen for Halloween

So, finally I experienced what this Hallmark holiday is alllll about. Having been in the States for many-a- Halloween's before, neither Geoff nor myself have ever made a big deal of it, but this year - our friends would'nt let us get away with spending the night in!
Costumes? No problem - they even supplied those for us, and how fitting for this German girl....lederhosen...although not your typical ones! We got matching his-and-her outfits and despite Geoff's protests, he even went as far as parting his hair and using HAIRSPRAY (I still cant believe it!). 
However, could'nt lose the flip-flops :-)

All in all it was great Halloween bash and if it was like this every year, I'd definitely participate in more parties...attendees brought their dogs, there was tonnes of food and all sorts of ancient games like Cornhole AKA Bean bag Toss (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornhole) were played.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sea to Shining Sea – a 48 Hour "Fun"(Mileage) Run

A quick check of the AA balance for this year along with a summation of remaining travel left me in a bit of a pickle, I was currently sitting on 30,393 BIS miles so far and have another ~8,000 remaining in already planned revenue tickets before the end of the year. Having hit Gold this year for the first time I felt like we were on a bit of a role, so naturally “What if we shoot for Platinum?” popped into my head…Hmmm one good mileage run or one strategically planned domestic ticket would get me there along with all the benefits that awaited. After perusing the forums, ITA search engine and AA.com one deal popped up and called to me it was a great deal from JFK to HNL, what better way to pick up the necessary miles than by going to visit family? The only issue left was when and how to get to JFK, a bit more searching combined with the relative flexibility of my schedule this month (rotating shifts so different off days each week) allowed me to find sale fares from SJU to JFK that timed up perfectly and ended up setting the trip up at ~4 cents per EQM and 3.6 cents per RDM. But of course that doesn't include the big bonuses:
  • 500 mile upgrades (will be 8 when completed rest of qualifying travel)
  • ·         Platinum qualification including;
  • ·         100% mileage bonus on all flights
  • ·         OneWorld lounge access on international flights
  • ·         72 hr. upgrade window vs. current 24 hr.

Tickets booked, upgrade requests in and the waiting game began, no upgrades cleared at T-24 hrs. but I was keeping a close eye on ExpertFlyer and knew there was still lots of availability to JFK. At about T-12 hrs. the first one cleared, SJU-JFK and it continued this way for the rest of the segments, nothing clearing until T-12 at the earliest but most at about T-4-6 hrs. I did pretty well too I’ll say, clearing on all flights but the transcons and this allowed me to sample essentially all of AA’s domestic first / business offerings; old brown recliner seats, newer blue recliner seats and the angled lie flats (NGBC) commonly used on international flights plus a regular coach window seat and also a coach exit row seat…It was like climbing the comfort scale one step at a time!

Monday – 05:00
Seaborne Airlines #2205 Seat: 2C
Depart: STX @ 6:15
Arrive: SJU @7:05

One of the great or not so great things about flying out of a small airport is that generally there is only 1 customs officer on duty at any time, which means that when he shows up late and only 20 minutes before your flight that you spend your morning waiting outside. Soon we were through and lining up on the tarmac to board our Twin Otter for the hop to SJU. One of the great things about these planes are the huge windows, I'm not sure if the 787 will even be able to match these, and they give a great view of the beautiful surroundings here.

Vieques (front left), Culebra (back left), St. Thomas (back right)

Vieques (La Chiva or Blue Beach), Culebrea (background)

Unfortunately the preflight checks and a bit of a headwind slowed our progress so we were late into San Juan, where upon arriving we found we had to taxi around the whole airport due to some construction. Rather than arriving at 7:05 and having comfortable 40 minute connection we reached our gate at 7:35 leaving only 10 minutes to cross 2 terminals to reach the gate for my connection onto AA. Luckily the airport is nearly deserted at that time of the morning, so with a stride Usain Bolt would envy I was off the plane, up the stairs and at full speed through the terminals dodging cleaning ladies and off duty police before reaching the gate just as the last passengers were boarding. Following a quick interrogation by undercover San Juan PD (apparently my running scared some people!) I was down the jetway to the relative comfort of AA’s old brown recliners.

AA 648 (757-2) Seat: 5A
Depart: SJU @ 7:55 AM
Arrive: JFK @ 11:39 AM

I very much look forward to the day that these brown seats are forever gone from AA, although nice and wide there’s something about the shape that just isn't right and I feel like there is nowhere to rest your head. That gripe aside I had what was most certainly the best egg dish I've had on a plane before on this flight, mozzarella and spinach quiche with chorizo, and roasted potatoes.

I chose a warm biscuit to go with it and naturally a glass of orange juice and a Bailey’s coffee. The surprise of a good breakfast made up for the connection issues earlier and I settled in for some computer work for the rest of the flight.

Spinach Quiche with Chorizo, Roast Potatoes and Biscuit

The Admiral’s Club near gate 42 was the stop to kill a couple hours before shoehorning myself into 25A for the transcon so needless to say I was looking forward to stretching out and watching some TV while having lunch. Little did I know but Oktoberfest has hit AA and they were offering a smoked ham / bacon sandwich on laugenbrotchen, though it turned out to be more of a pretzel cut in half than a true pretzel roll.

AA 117 (767-2) Seat: 25A
Depart: JFK @ 1:45 PM
Arrive: LAX @ 4:30 PM

As I've mentioned before, Priority AAcess makes itself invaluable when in coach…especially on a packed widebody. All exit row seats were already taken when I booked my flight so I settled for next best, a window close to the front. Upon settling in I noticed that unless I've shrunk there seemed to be much more knee room than I was expecting, sure enough when I pulled up seatguru using the gogo inflight wifi (wish they still had the free trials!) I saw that AA’s 762 have 33-34” of pitch, easily outdoing any of their other offerings or most domestic competition! The pilot comes on to announce an on time departure and that he’s expecting we’ll be in LA about 15 minutes early, in addition we’ll have clear skies including views of the Grand Canyon, Rockies, Las Vegas etc. I think this is going to be a good flight until I get the seatmate who refuses to use his voice, he just sits and stares…uh-oh. On the upside there’s a new American Way with an article on Panama, looks nice better add it to the soon go list. Flight attendants come around for snack / drink service; I order a giant pretzel with mustard (again on the Oktoberfest theme J) and snagged the only Glenlivet allocated to Y. This was all met with a stare from quiet guy, who proceeded to point to some drink without answering the FA’s queries as to his selection. It continued this way for the rest of the flight, I realize it’s not important whatsoever but can’t you at the very least be polite? Finally upon landing Mr. Seatmate is the first up but then stands there and talks to other passengers around and gets down a bunch of luggage, guess he just didn't like me!

Grand Canyon

Another airport another Admiral’s Club, though I will say I'm not too fond of the one at LAX. The area by the bar is always packed and also the only area with TVs and good plane spotting, whereas the area in the back is nice to relax but always too cold and feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere. This time there were goodies in addition to the snack mix to keep me entertained.

Cheese and Crackers, Rum and Coke

Next installment, Hawaii flights and the Aloha service

A weekend South of the Border (Part 3 of 3)

(Apologies in advance for lack of photos in this instalment!)

Upon awaking that last morning before heading to the flight we came across the only disappointing aspect to the trip, when checking upgrade status on AA.com we discovered that while mine had cleared, Michelle’s hadn't  Unable to call into customer service we figured we’d take our chances at the airport and head over a bit early to try to figure out what had happened. But first we took our last hot showers for quite a while and enjoyed the view, space and multiple shower heads that the W's huge shower afforded.

There was just enough time for last stroll through Polanco to grab breakfast, normally we love the breakfasts at international Starwoods but this spread was awfully weak appearing in both quality and selection. A couple blocks up the road near where we had dinner the first night were 2 very European bakeries with a wide selection of macaroons, breads, croissants, and even Brezel!

The W Mexico City offers a car service anywhere including the airport, it was 400 pesos if charged to the room and 350 if paying cash. While maybe convenient and an additional way to earn some Starpoints it’s definitely not economical, a taxi is only about 200 pesos.

AA #105 (737-8) Seats: 4A & 7C
Depart: MEX 6:40 AM
Arrive: MIA 7:05 AM

At check in we were informed the reason only one upgrade had cleared while the other didn't is because the phone agent we spoke with before the trip had failed to merge the PNRs as she had indicated, hence when I requested the upgrade it only requested for me and not Michelle. There was one seat left available but 2 Platinums on the wait list ahead of us, which did not bode well. Due to the early check in we had plenty of time to kill after clearing security, was awfully nice to just have a metal detector, before we boarded so a visit to the Admirals Club was in order. The Club in Mexico City was quite large with nice views of both the tarmac and an indoor courtyard at the hotel, not to mention a decent library and a few hot and cold food selections. Thankfully they had a shuttle when boarding was called as it was a good 10-15 minute walk to the gate, as we found out when first looking for the AC.

I offered Michelle the business class seat many times but she refused and instead took refuge in her empty bulkhead row to stretch out and sleep for the flight, was probably a fair choice! Breakfast was served and I went with chicken enchiladas which while a bit cheesy were good and did the job. The flight was smooth and uneventful except for an incident in which I tried to give Michelle my blanket, after she’d had it for about half an hour one of the other passengers, a very wealthy looking lady with her family, decided to complain to the crew that I’d given up my blanket and that it’s not fair for one coach passenger to have a blanket while her family member who was sitting in coach didn't have one. She thought it worthwhile to complain loud enough and frequently enough about how it’s not right for me to share my blanket with my wife, even though I wasn't using it, that the crew ended up taking the blanket back from Michelle! I still can’t believe how inconsiderate some people are, just because you can’t share your blanket what’s wrong with me sharing mine? The crew even said that it was her that was complaining and not her family member! Sometimes I wish you could tell someone off on a plane, unfortunately as we see from time to time any disagreement usually leads to police involvement and crazy accusations. 

AA #2230 (757-2) Seats 17E & 17F
Depart: MIA 5:30 PM
Arrive: STT 8:20 PM

Dinner was a trusty toasted panini in the MIA Admirals club that would not have been possible without our flight to STT being delayed by nearly an hour, that also gave us time to check with the AAngels about some better seats and they were able to grab us 2 exit rows, making the late flight somewhat bearable, they really are lifesavers sometimes!

We took advantage of Priority AAcess and boarded early which proved to be a smart decision as Pressure was going back to STT with his entourage who ended up filling probably 1/3 of the plane plus all the VI shoppers coming back from States with their arms full of shopping bags and all fighting over overhead bins.
Despite a short nap on the plane the flight without food passed slowly so I was very happy to see the lights of St. Thomas glittering ahead as we made our approach.\, I was surprised at how small and empty the island looks when coming in from the West! Bouncing awkwardly down the short runway it was somewhat surprising the pilot was able to get it reigned in and slowed down just at the end of the runway to take the last exit to the taxiway.

We grabbed our bag which despite being priority tagged was the 3rd to last out, come to think of it all the priority bags came in a group and the end…We really need to get our act together in the VI when it comes to airports and customer experiences! That’s when we realized we had VI taxi dramas again, being short on cash we hit the only ATM at the airport only to find it was broken (see comment above!) and taxis here take cash alone. We were able to convince the dispatcher that we could get cash at the hotel and were herded into the next group of 15 that was headed in the direction of our hotel, yep no private taxis and rarely a direct taxi here. We got to spend the next 40 minutes making a 15 minute drive due to all the stops to drop passengers off but finally reached our destination, the newly renovated Marriott Frenchman’s Reef. Having heard so much about the supposed Marriott jewel of the Caribbean we took advantage of a discount rate available to Marriott Rewards Silver members and got in for about $100.

While in all fairness we only went to the gift shop to buy toothpaste, our room and the lobby I can confidently say we won’t be back…especially at the $300+ rates they charge during season. We were told at check in that we had been upgraded, which wasn't important as we were due to leave at 6:00 the next morning, but upon reaching our room we had a low level connecting room facing the parking lot. I'm fine with no upgrade; especially from a chain we've stayed 0 nights with this year but don’t lie about being “upgraded”. Anyhow the bed was lumpy and far too soft to get a good sleep, and for a Caribbean hotel that is heavily marketed to tourists the rooms were very boring; white walls, tile floors, a kitschy painting on one wall and a TV  desk, chair and bed. The only thing with some colour was the chair but it seems like they neutered the hotel during their big renovation and now it could be any Marriott or Motel 6 anywhere in the world. All in all I was just surprised and disappointed that this is, apparently, some of the “best” the VI has to offer.

Another overpriced cab ride that I had to sit on the floor for this time (not enough seats) and we were at the seaplane terminal for our flight home. No photo of this one but same stunning view, only this time because the flight path for St. Thomas to St. Croix is higher than St. Croix to St. Thomas we were able to see the other seaplane heading in the opposite direction. A cool sight any time but especially as the bright red sun rose over the beautiful turquoise and sapphire Caribbean Sea.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cafe, arquitectura & muy bueno Comida!

.....which about sums up our last weekend in San Juan, celebrating Geoff's birthday :) We had lots of good, strong Spanish coffee, sightsaw some new-old gorgeous buildings and churches and of course - got our fill of Puerto Rican/Spanish cuisine!

But to start with..a nice birthday surprise upon checking in at our hotel!

After a horrible 2-hour sleep (well, for me...Geoff of course slept soundly as a rock), we started off our Saturday with our favorite spot for breakfast - Kasalta (http://www.kasalta.com/) We frequented this cafe/bistro/bakery only a couple of times whilst living here in San Juan, but its become our go-to spot for breakfast whenever we come and visit. You cant beat the enormous breakfast sandwiches made with fresh crusty bread, Serano ham and Manchego cheese. And freshly made Cafe con Leche (espresso with milk) for just $1.25? I'll take two please. They make everything from little marzipan pigs to Quesito's (pastry filled with sweet cream cheese) for deserts.. we usually get a couple for the road

Our tummies full and happy, we set off to explore Old San Juan in all its new reconstruction glory. It is always a surprise and wonderful thing to see San Juan progressing so quickly with such a huge emphasis on remodeling it with tourism at the forefront and driving force behind its design. I usually wouldnt say this about places, as typically it would be sacrificing charm, culture and local life, but with San Juan, they are just nailing it on the head - in fact, a lot of the old buildings which have been run down and forgotten about and now being brought to life and amplified in ways that never wouldve been if it wasnt for wanting to increase tourism (and the help of federal funding of course). 

Look familiar? (exact replica of the Liberty Bell)

Here is a great example of how an old building is slowly being restored..

Inside the San Juan Cathedral and resting place of Juan Ponce de Leon (first Governor of Puerto Rico)

View from our hotel room:

The former prison cells are now surrounded by the Puerto Rican Tourism Co. 's offices...although kept intact, we didnt actually get to see them.

San Juan's version of "Pigeon Park" (except this was abandoned and no homeless people around). However, someone had built these little roosting holes for all the pigeons around.

What better way to start the day than with some blow-torch waffles and Siphon coffee? We read about this place called Waffle-era on someone's blog and it just so happened to fit in with the morning's sightseeing plans so after we walked our feet off up and down the steep streets of Old San Juan, a plate of waffles sounded like just the thing we needed to refuel.
And this is not just any waffle house... this tiny, cozy little cafe has no more than 8 little tables with street front view of the old city and a waffle menu to die for. After much umming and aahhing, I settled on deep dish waffle with smoked salmon, goat cheese and grilled tomatoes with a side of herb Greek yoghurt...yum, yum and yum :) The birthday boy couldnt decide between a sweet or savory, so he got both.. a Serano ham and Manchego cheese (pics below the cheese being melted by a blowtorch) and a custom strawberry, banana with habanero honey. Yup, we were waddling after that breakfast!

All in all a great weekend and it was nice to take it at a slower pace for a change... our holidays are usually filled with trying to jam-pack in as many things as possible.
After a Costco shop and filling our cooler with lots of delicious cheese, fruit and other tidbits we cant get here in St. Croix, American Airlines lost our luggage...how I do not know, considering it is just one flight with no stopovers, but they could not even track it.
On the bright side, we entered a competition through Liat (a Caribbean airline) while in San Juan to win a round-trip ticket anywhere in the Caribbean where they fly and received a call the following day only to be told that we won!

Follow up: We received our bags the next evening, the only thing that spoiled was some ultra-thick yogurt...luckily the cheese and fruit made it here just in time :)