Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Back to Reality

And so it's over... 35 days of being a road warrior has come to a close as I'm boarding my final flight within the hour. I come home after enduring many hours in the sky and many nights where I couldn't even remember what number hotel room I was staying in. The memories are vast and I survived my journey without sickness, mugging or too many blisters on my newly tanned feet. Unfortunately I only played basketball once, coached it another time, and watched it on TV a few, but the baboons showed themselves quite frequently in Cape Town so my title can endure. So after logging nearly 46,000 miles in the air, close to 500 on the rails and over 50 on my Nike Free's I leave Tokyo now and in 11 hours I will be back in the USA, where I can finally watch the Olympics... in English. See you soon Bob Costas.

Every city I went to added something to my memory.. So thank you to all of these cities:

Tokyo - thank you for crazy baseball fans and some great Scruggs Sushi

Beijing - thank you for the Great Wall and smog everywhere

Hong Kong - thank you for being so efficient and one of my top 3 favorite cities in the world

Shenzhen - thank you for the most interesting amusement park I've ever seen

Singapore - thank you for the Night Safari and less than 24 hours in your arms

Bangkok - thank you for Muay Thai, great food, and cheap massages

Amman - thank you for Petra, everyone wanting a tip, and my first horse back ride in 25 years

Amsterdam - thank you for great people who all speak English and smile a lot

Budapest - thank you for incredible hospitality by the Vrana family and no one staying awake to watch Team USA but Uncle Frank and me

Barcelona - thank you for the sun, the sand and the ability to understand what people are saying to me

Frankfurt - thank you for showing me that there are still punk rockers chasing the dream

Cape Town - thank you for the best people in the world and great food to go with them

Istanbul - thank you for cheap Kabobs, tons of history and the airport lounge

Shanghai - thank you for making me want to return again


1. JW Marriott (Beijing) - 2 nights - 5 STAR PLUS - Cost = FREE
Classy every step of the way, great room, amazing buffet breakfast, best executive lounge of the entire trip, top of the line workout room & indoor pool

2. JW Marriott (Shenzhen) - 1 night - 5 STAR - Cost = FREE
Just a step down from Beijing in attention to detail, great room, outdoor pool and food options, executive lounge wasn't quite as good, but still great.

3. Marriott City Center (Shanghai) - 1 night - 5 STAR - Cost = FREE
Probably the surprise of the trip, brand new, upgraded to a huge suite, nice indoor pool and tons of options at the buffet, great location

4. Marriott (Amman) - 2 nights - 4 STAR - Cost = FREE
Upgraded to a large suite, breakfast was good...not great and executive lounge options weren't as varied, not a good location to explore.

5. Renaissance (Amsterdam) - 2 nights - 4 STAR - Cost = $105/night
Small room (didn't get upgraded), lounge didn't have huge food offering but was very well maintained and equipped, great location.

6. Marriott AC Gava Del Mar (Barcelona) - 2 nights - 4 STAR - Cost = FREE
Another surprise as it didn't get great reviews online, right on the beach, great pool, lots of sunshine and a mini bar that they restock daily for free, great bed

7. Radisson Blu (Frankfurt) - 1 night - 4 STAR - Cost = $95
A hotel that wants to be more than it is, very cool pool, but funky design everywhere, breakfast was bountiful but not well maintained, smallish room

8. Hyde All Suite (Cape Town) - 3 nights - 4 STAR - Cost = $53 /night
Huge rooms, with large kitchen and living room, breakfast wasn't great nor was the overall attention to detail (used credit on hotels.com for $55/night discount)

9. Harbour Grand (Hong Kong) - 1 night - 4 STAR - Cost = $110/night
An older hotel that needs a bit of an updating, great location and rooftop pool, breakfast was outstanding.

10. Park Plaza (Bangkok) - 3 nights- 4 STAR - Cost = FREE
One of my favorites, and probably more of a 4.5 Star, great pool, didn't use any hotel restaurants, great location and nice staff.

11. Mercure Roxy (Singapore) - 1 night - 3.5 STAR - Cost = $110
Hotels are very expensive in Singapore and so the value for the money can't compare to anywhere else on the trip, a decent hotel, nice pool area, didn't try the food.

12. NH Schipol (Amsterdam) - 1 night - 3 STAR - Cost = $80
Not too great of an airport hotel, lobby was great and then the rooms were very sub par

13. Coco Grand Ueno (Tokyo) - 1 night - 3 STAR - Cost = $95
Typical Tokyo hotel, tiny, cool gadgets, but the smallest bathroom I've ever squeezed into.

14. Metropark Causeway Bay (Hong Kong) - 1 night - 3 STAR - Cost = $95
Needs some updating, nice view, but that's about it.

15. Hotel Akurk (Istanbul) - 1 night - 2.5 STAR - Cost = Free
It was free, thanks to Turkish Airlines 7+ hour layover program. Thank goodness it was free.

In summary... 23 nights in hotels with 12 being free due to Radisson Points or Marriott's Summer "Stay Two Nights Get One Night Free" promo. The other 11 nights cost me $744 so not a bad deal to stay at some incredibly nice places. All of the Marriott properties (except AC Gava Del Mar) also included lounge access and complimentary breakfast each day. With most buffet breakfasts around $30/day, this was another huge savings. The Marriott's also upgraded me to suites on 6/10 nights. Gotta love Marriott!


1. Cathay Pacific - 2 flights, Hong Kong - Singapore / Singapore - Bangkok
unbelievable attention to detail, great flight attendants, excellent meals

2. Turkish Airways - 2 flights, Cape Town - Istanbul / Istanbul Shanghai
"Chef" on board, great food, best seat of the trip, nice amenity kit

3. South African Airways - 2 flights, Frankfurt-Johannesburg / Johannesburg -Cape Town
excellent food, good entertainment and service, galley kept a bit messy when observed on some trips to the restroom.

4. All Nippon Airways - 2 flights, Shanghai - Tokyo / Tokyo - Los Angeles
love the Asian hospitality, had to eat the Japanese menu on the first flight (didn't eat much), western option on long haul much better, seat was nice.

5.Royal Jordanian - 2 flights, Bangkok - Amman / Amman - Amsterdam
nice amenity kit, food was quite good and the service was above average

6. Japan Airlines - 1 flight, Tokyo - Beijing
Great flight attendants, western food option not great, not a long flight so not fully flat seats.

7. Dragon Air - 1 flight, Beijing - Hong Kong
Partially owned by Cathay Pacific, much of the same high quality hospitality, good food, regular business class type seating

8. Iberia - 4 flights, Amsterdam - Madrid / Madrid - Barcelona / Barcelona - Madrid / Madrid - Frankfurt
although intra-Europe flights have coach seats in business class... Food was delicious, flight attendants were great and the thank you chocolate at the end of the meal was outstanding.

9. KLM - 2 flights, both in economy classAmsterdam - Budapest (round trip). Food was subpar, seats were small, but their customer service was outstanding, flying in coach is no fun!

10. American Airlines - 1 flight, Los Angeles - Tokyo
Not even in the same category as the international carriers, food very average and seating and entertainment not up to par.

In summary, taking off and landing 19 times in 5 weeks can take it's toll. Using an American Airlines "One World" award and United Miles I was able to book the majority in Business Class which helps alleviate many of the problems as a nice seat and a decent meal are cures for any blues one might feel from being at 35,000 feet for so much time. After flying nearly 46,000 miles I'm ready for a quick break from the air, but I'll be back soon!


1. Hong Kong
Always been one of my favorites, very easy to navigate, great lounges and tons of shopping. Access to the city is a breeze, just 20 minutes on the Airport Express.

2. Singapore
Shopper's delight, lounge was great and efficiency was unsurpassed. Consistently ranked as one of the world's best airports and for good reason. Took the hotel shuttle to and from the airport.

3. Beijing
Huge, new and modern but a bit difficult to get to the city as it was nearly an hour journey to my hotel. Lounge was decent and service was outstanding.

4. Bangkok
About 25 minutes to downtown on the airport train, newer airport (about 6 years old) and it's kind of outgrown itself, very busy, but not over crowded.

5. Madrid
Even though they lost my luggage I love the architecture, space and Iberia has some great lounges (love the beef sticks), easy to navigate (did not transit to city)

6. Barcelona
About 45 minutes to downtown via a train and subway, very easy to navigate and lounge option was fairly good.

7. Frankfurt
Great lounge, easy to get to/from the city via a 15 minute train ride, very efficient, what else would you expect from the Germans?

8. Amsterdam
Another great airport with lots of activity, train to downtown is about 20 minutes and I spent a long layover here at a park across the street enjoying the summer sun, no lounge access as I flew economy, but the blue dressed KLM girls were everywhere and very helpful. Baggage claim could speed up a bit.

9. Haneda (Tokyo)
Nice lounge, about 20 minutes from the middle of town, a bit crowded but everything is in Japan.

10. Shanghai Pudong
A good hour from town via the subway, huge airport, taxi from runway to our gate took 25 minutes, did not access lounge as I was arriving onlyl

11. Narita (Tokyo)
Another airport which is on the outskirts of the city center, about 40 minutes via train or bus, big and efficient, no lounge access as I was arriving only.

12. Cape Town
Very easy airport to navigate, not overly big so you can get where you need to go without much of an issue, about 15 minutes to city center via a bus, nice lounge as well.

13. Johannesburg
On par with Cape Town, just a bit on a larger scale and thus harder to get around, nice lounge and very friendly people.

14. Budapest
They've improved since I was last there so it gets the job done, nothing over the top but fairly efficient, although baggage claim isn't the quickest.

15. Los Angeles
Not the best, if you've been there you know what I mean... if you haven't been there then try and avoid it. American Airlines lounge was the only lounge where I would have had to pay for food or drink...enough said.

16. Shanghai Hongqiao
Worst signage of any airport, the metro drops you off at Terminal 2 (domestic terminal) and then you need to find a shuttle bus to take you the 20 minutes to Terminal 1. I asked for directions to the shuttle bus 4 times, it shouldn't be that difficult.

17. Istanbul
One of my least favorite airports in the world. It's nicely kept but the service is terrible, seems as though no one wants to be working, security is slow, ticketing is slow, customs is slow, and the passengers don't follow boarding directions... but the Turkish Airways lounge was the best of the trip, simply amazing.

18. Amman
The absolute worst. No transportation to the city except for $35 taxi rides, lounge was atrocious, check in was scattered and security and customs was a mess, I will not be back!

In summary, International airports dominate those airports found in the USA. The main thing that I discovered is that most people in airports around the world are truly excited to be there and excited for their journey versus the people in the USA who always seem stressed, upset or in a rush. Security lines moved quickly, check in was usually a breeze and the vast majority of airports I visited were immaculately clean and maintained at the highest level... not always the case in the USA.

Goin' Back to Cali

August 6-7, 2012
Shanghai, China
Marriott City Center

My flight from Istanbul to Shanghai was scheduled for a 12:30am departure and I honestly can't tell you if we departed on time or not. I was sound asleep as soon as I sat down in my chair. Walking around Istanbul for 7 miles in the 90 degree weather sapped my energy and thus I slept for 90% of the 10 hour flight. Unfortunately I missed the meal service, but I think I can handle missing a meal or two.

We landed in Shanghai at 3:40pm and after collecting my luggage made my way to the Metro into the city. I was hot, sweaty and getting a bit aggravated as the train made 17 stops prior to my destination... a good hour of stop and go in the subway. I finally reached my destination and checked in to the Marriott City Center which proved to be one of the trips' great hotels.

Only a couple of years old, the Marriott is located right near the main pedestrian road, NikeTown Shanghai and the famous Bund (waterfront area). Shanghai is a huge city, over 30 million people and I think I saw 25 million of them on my 20 hours here. The city is packed but there is plenty of space for people to move. Back to the hotel.... my final night of the trip and I was upgraded to a corner suite... a sweet corner suite!

I was scheduled to meet a new St. Joseph student at 7:00pm in the lobby and I didn't arrive at the Marriott until 6:00pm and needed some exercise so I found the pool and did a lap... actually a few laps and felt much better. I made my way down to the lobby and met "Robbie" and his parents and answered any and all of their questions. Robbie was very polished and will do a great job at St. Joseph.

After our meeting I went out on the town, visited the amazing Nike Town where things were twice as expensive then in the USA and walked down the busy pedestrian mall being asked no less than 30 times if I wanted a massage. Now I know I love massages, but I think these massages aren't the kind that one would find in a reputable establishment... so I declined, and declined and declined some more. I think next year I will wear a shirt that says "I do NOT need a massage" ... maybe that will help.

Back home at midnight for lights out and shockingly the lights were back on at 3:30am as a bit of jet lag had overtaken me... not too big of a worry as I had many hours of airplane time later today to catch up. I headed down to a great breakfast and then walked the mile or so down to the Nanjing Market Place where all sorts of "fake" good can be purchased.

I hate to barter, but today I was determined... but I still think I paid too much as I purchased two ICE watches for about $14 / each. These watches retail in the stores for $110, so a 90% discount is hardly anything to complain about. Hopefully they will work! This was a very aggressive market place as many shop owners would try and grab your arm and walk you into their store... I'm pretty tough so I didn't let this happen, lots of "No Thank You's" were said and I made my way back to the hotel for a quick shower and 11am checkout.

I hopped on the subway for the 30 minute journey to Shanghai's other airport, got lost for about 15 minutes while at the airport, even though I asked for directions 4 times! Finally I got to the correct terminal and found my flight... up in the air to Japan and then across the Pacific.

The journey is coming to an end...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Turks Love Work

August 5, 2012
Istanbul, Turkey
Akgun Hotel

Turkish Airways was recently awarded Europe's best airline award and my flight from Cape Town to Istanbul proved that the award was well deserved. The best seat of the trip, incredible catering and just a great on-board experience for the 11 or so hour flight (2 hours from Cape Town to Johannesburg and 9 hours from Johannesburg to Istanbul).

One small issue though was the fact that they kept the cabin too warm... all night long and no need for the nice duvet. Oh well...

Arriving at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul is a whole different story though. We arrived at 5:40am and instead of parking at a gate, we had to park on the tarmac and bus in to the terminal. This is something I just can't stand... but I dealt with it. Then upon arrival all U.S. citizens, along with a bunch of other countries need to pay $20 to get a VISA. Well, low and behold I didn't have $20 in US currency, nor 15 Euros, nor any Turkish Lira and my luck would have it that the only ATM in the arrivals hall was out of commission. So I begged a few people for money to no avail, bunch of jerks, and then asked for assistance from the airlines and the info counter... big mistake.

I have many Turkish friends...actually under 3, and they are all great people, but it seems that every single person I met today absolutely hated their job and did not want to help in any way, shape or form. It was aggravating to say the least and after I maneuvered the system a bit, I ended up in the departure area (I went up a back stairwell) and found an ATM, withdrew some money and made my way back downstairs to the VISA man who was the most unfriendly person EVER!

He put the stamp in my passport, I didn't say Thank You and I proceeded to passport control which was luckily a breeze because everyone on my flight had passed through 30 minutes prior. I picked up my luggage and made my way to the Turkish Airways Hotel Desk.

Another nice feature about Turkish Airways is that if you have a 7+ hour layover (mine was 17, they will get you a hotel for your layover... free of charge. It wasn't the Ritz, but it did the trick and after a 4 hour nap I was ready for my 6 or 7 hours of Istanbul exploration.

First stop was the Doubletree Hotel in Old Town...scouting out potential places for our Spring Break Trip. The Sales Manager Ismail (who is now one of my 3 Turk friends) was great and the hotel is awesome... could be the place! I then kept on walking in the 91 degree weather, sweating like a pig, although in this Muslim country I don't know if they use that expression. I saw a few of the familiar sights, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, etc. and then headed down to the edge of the Bosphorus where a bunch of locals were enjoying the sun and diving off the edge of the breakwater into the sea, which was not too clean. I was tempted, but I didn't want to spend the last three days of the trip with a middle eastern infection so I just did some sunbathing which was 99.9% done by men. There were 2 women that I saw on the rocks or on the breakwater... out of about 1,000 men. I guess the ladies aren't allowed to take the robes off even when it's 91 degrees out.

After walking 7.2 miles, no blisters today, I headed to the Four Seasons where I was to meet the 1/2 Dreamer, Tahla who went to high school in Maine this year. I met him last year during my trip and it's great to see his English improve so much.

We had a nice Turkish dinner and then I rode the tram back to my hotel, had my first Turkish hair cut... not too bad, and then de-greased from a long sweaty day of walking with a hot shower.

Now I'm sitting in the Turkish Airways Lounge. By far the best lounge of the trip... too bad it's located in the 2nd worse airport of the trip.

Headed to Shanghai tonight... no blogging or facebooking probably but I think I will survive.

See you in Tokyo something soon.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Back Home In Africa

August 1-4, 2012
Cape Town
Hyde All Suites Hotel

The journey is near complete. The final destination is Cape Town... other than my impending 15 hour layover in Istanbul and 23 hours in Shanghai. I've been to Cape Town many times and it truly is one of my favorite cities in the world. The amazing people, absolute beauty and world class cuisine (at a cheap price) makes this a great spot to end my adventure.

I arrived after an overnight flight from Frankfurt and I must admit, it wasn't the best of flights. The food and service were great but it was a bumpy affair, similar to riding a city bus for 10 hours and thus I was unable to get any quality time in somber. My flight arrived in Johannesburg at 7:15am and I had 90 minutes in between flights which I spent at the very nice South African Airways lounge.

The two-hour flight to Cape Town was much smoother than the night before and I caught a quick cat nap and was eager and energetic upon arrival just before noon. I took the airport bus which took me to the city center and then a taxi the additional 5 miles to my hotel located in Sea Point, which is a neighborhood of high rises set right along the ocean's edge.

Day #1 I was still a bit tired and spent the afternoon walking along the oceanfront promenade enjoying the beauty of the Cape. Dinner was spent at the V&A Waterfront, a trendy upscale shopping center located along the harbor... think Pier 39 in San Francisco... pigeons included!

Cape Town is in the middle of winter and thus the lovely rooftop pool of my hotel was useless as the weather was in the 50's most of the day. If it's not good swimming weather than it's definitely good walking weather and I had a great 3 mile walk to the city bowl where so much action (good and bad) occurs. A delicious lunch at a coffee house with a great vanilla cupcake for dessert highlighted the lunch time hours.

After lunch I was picked up by a good friend. Kita Thierry, who runs a basketball program in the townships. Every Easter when we come to Cape Town we help put on some clinics with his Hoops For Hope organization and today we went to the Philipi Township and I popped by an after school basketball clinic for about an hour. There were a few familiar faces from years past and it was great to get some time with the kids. A great dinner at a restaurant just two blocks from my hotel completed the evening... a three course dinner for $15... carpaccio, pork belly and the best brownie sunday ever... yum yum yum1

Day #3 saw a journey to the closest safari lodge to Cape Town, Aquila. This trip was put together by our trusted South Africa "destination specialist" Michelle who always helps us with our Spring Break trip. We were looking at options for our 2013 safari and unfortunately Aquila isn't going to make the cut. We did see animals but it just wanted the experience we were looking for... we shall continue our search. Dinner was with Kita, his wife and their cute little daughter, Boston at a great Italian restaurant... a great day in the books.

My final morning in Cape Town saw a visit to the Old Biscuit Mill, which is a large market area similar to San Francisco's Ferry Building. So many food and drink options that it makes you a bit crazy. But I managed to escape with just a hot chocolate and left all of the other delicious food for the hordes of other tourists. We then continued our journey to Greenmarket Square which is where all of the locals set up shop with their "African" souvenirs. I purchased a few and then it was time for the 15 minute drive to the airport... time to put Cape Town in my rearview mirror.

It was another great journey to South Africa made even more special by the Olympic success of the locals and the immense pride that the South Africans felt by their success.

It's now 3:00pm and my journey continues with a flight to Istanbul where I will have a 15 hour layover, hopefully some sunshine and dinner with a 1/2 Dream kid who I met during my last visit and currently studies in the USA. From Istanbul I will fly to Shanghai where I'll meet with a St. Joseph student and then from Shanghai I fly to Tokyo for a 5 hour layover (where I will compile by "BEST OF" list for my trip) and then the final flights back to the good ole USA.

Onward and upward I go.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Can We Please Jaywalk?

July 30-31,  2012
Radisson Blu Frankfurt

I made it to Frankfurt, Europe's financial hub and home to the 3rd busiest airport in Europe (behind London and Paris).  My hope was to move my flight to South Africa up a day (flying on the 30th instead of the 31st), but unfortunately there was no space available so I was afforded 24 hours in Frankfurt... .not a bad compromise I guess.

Part of me was feeling adventurous so I even considered hopping on a flight or an overnight train to London to at least say I'd been to an Olympics, but due to the tight schedule on the 31st and no other flight options I thought better of it.  Might have to wait for Rio.

So Frankfurt it was and the only reason it ever became so was because my original flight to Johannesburg on Iberia (from Madrid) was cancelled as Iberia stopped flying the route back in March.  Thus American Airlines was forced to find me another option and Frankfurt and South African Airways was the winner.

The Germans are efficient.  There is a reason why their economy is still going strong and they are ready to help on the bailout of other European nations.  Their trains run on time, everyone speaks English and plain and simple... Things Get Done!

Upon arrival at Frankfurt's massive airport I took a combination of train and tram and arrived at my hotel, the Radisson Blu which they claim is the only round hotel in Europe.  The Radisson considers this hotel a "design" hotel and thus it is very quirky with lots of interesting "design" touches.  Industrial looking in some places, futuristic in others and just weird in others you wonder where the inspiration came from.   

I finally got to my room around 9pm and I wasn't too hungry but I was road weary and thus made a trip up to the 18th floor pool and spa area.  Now I've seen some cool pools on this trip but this was one of the best.  The pool was small but it had a current that you could swim agains, but for swimmers like me and Michael Phelps since we swim too fast, the current didn't do much.  However the pool has a huge window that you can see the entire Frankfurt skyline out of... pretty cool when you are floating on your back and looking out into the Frankfurt night.   The spa area also had showers and saunas with windows looking outward... a first for me.   I was now free of the travel grime, relaxed and ready for bed.

Like many European hotels, the Radisson does not believe in the King or Queen being part of the family... instead the put two twin beds together with a connector in the middle and they think their customers will be happy.  It wasn't too bad, but still not the best as I tossed and turned not knowing what twin I should be sleeping on.

Morning came and the breakfast buffet called my name.  Included in my friends and family rate of $93 was the normally $30 breakfast buffet.  It was probably the worst buffet breakfast of the trip... but then again I've been to some amazing spreads.   It filled the void left in my stomach from no dinner the night before though and I had a couple hours of Olympics to watch before my 1pm checkout.

With my flight not scheduled until 8:45pm I had some time to kill so I stored my bags at the hotel and boarded the tram for a ride into the old city center.   This was typical Germany.   Tons of sidewalk cafes, pigeons, churches and street performers... an easy way to kill 3 hours.  I wasn't hungry so I instead opted for a $6 Starbucks Java Chip Frap and watched a musician do his thing.

I returned to the hotel, got my bags and headed to the train station for the 15 minute ride to the airport... my 24 hours in Frankfurt were about to come to an end.

Thoughts on Germany... 

The Germans all speak English however NONE of their signage is in English, not in the subways, trams or many tourist sites.  Thus it was a bit hard to figure things out.   

They don't check tickets on the tram, subway or airport train.  There are no turnstiles to put your ticket in nor any conductors checking, so maybe I wasted the $15 or so that I spent on tickets.  Must be a very honest society.

The Germans don't jaywalk.   Honest to God, the first night walking to the hotel there were 5 of us waiting for a light to turn green for at least 3 minutes without a car in sight.  I wanted to just go, but I didn't want them making a citizen's arrest on me or anything.  

That's all I learned in 24 hours... it's time to head south of the Equator... Cape Town here I come!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Saving Spain's Economy

July 27-30, 2012
Barcelona / Gava Del Mar
ME Hotel Barcelona/ AC Gava Del Mar

Barcelona is quite simply one of the best cities in the world. The sun, san, history, food and people all contribute to it's greatness and it's been a great four days here and I sad to say adios.

As you might remember, my bag didn't make it with me on my flight so I had about 24 hours minus pretty much all of my clothing and toiletries. Not a problem as there was a huge mall just 1/4 mile from my hotel so I found the cheapest clothing store possible and got 1 day's worth of gear. This set me back about $13 so as you can imagine, I wasn't buying Ralph Lauren... but I was good for a day.

My first full day in Barcelona was spent exploring. I had a subway pass, good walking shoes and 85 degree weather... what else could I ask for.

One of the great iPhone apps is the Nike Run App which measures how far you run (or walk in my case). Today I put in 11.13 miles and it was plenty! I started the day walking the 10 minutes down to the beaches of Barcelona (more on this later), then I found my lunch spot of choice, McDonald's which was huge but vastly understaffed, slow, and dirty. After a quick lunch I continued walking passing by tons of outdoor cafes, tourists galore and just basically a lot of things going on. After about 4 miles I found the subway and took a ride to La Sagrada Familia Cathedral. This is one of Gaudi's most famous works which started 100 years ago and is projected to be completed in 2026. It truly is a remarkable piece of architecture, incredibly huge and the details are amazing. I snapped by photos and was on my way.

The next stop was Las Ramblas... the pedestrian walking street.

There was a subway station right next to La Sagrada Familia but I was feeling adventurous and fancied a walk... not quite so sure I wanted such a long walk. After about 3 miles I found a few more photo ops, and finally found another subway station which I took the 3 stops to my desired destination.

Las Ramblas is your typical pedestrian street, with vendors selling everything, people everywhere and probably a few pockets being picked...not mine though! I was staying strong, the feet were happy and I was getting closer to the beach area which meant I was getting near home.

The walk continued... and continued... and continued and finally I reached my hotel. Just a tad under 5 hours and over 11 miles... I think I had my exercise for the day. But I needed dinner so the 1/4 mile walk back to the mall was in order and thus Day #1 was in the books.

Day #2 meant that my time in the city was over as I was moving out to the first little beach town south of Barcelona, Gava Del Mar. Two free nights courtesy of Marriott's summer promo were in store so I was on my way. A couple of metro stops and a train got me to the Gava Train Station about 40 minutes after departure. Being that my hotel was about 4 miles from the train station I had to break down and get a taxi... after yesterday's walk I was in no mood to pound the pavement again, especially with my bags.

Arrival at the AC Gava Del Mar was about 2:00pm and I immediately hit the beach which was just 100 yards from my room. I decided to take a short walk up and down the neverending beach front...short being about an hour and in that hour I saw some sights!

Spain is currently facing a huge financial crises. I've pegged the problem to three things:
1. People spend all of their money on cigarettes... smoking is everywhere!
2. People don't eat dinner until 9 or 10pm... I'd enter empty restaurants at 8pm and then as I was finishing up the flood of people would be entering... tough to go to work early in the morning if you don't finish dinner until midnight.
3. Swimsuit stores only sell the bikini bottoms... if they sold the tops also just think how much more money they'd make?

So during my walk it became clear that tops were indeed optional and it didn't matter if you were a beached whale or a prime catch, toplessness did not discriminate.

After about 2 hours at the beach I retired to my room and watched some Olympics in Espanol before heading down to dinner at one of the outdoor cafes. Dinner was lousy, overpriced and the waiter was indifferent... I think he wanted to be on the beach, smoking and looking at topless women instead.

My final full day in Gava Del Mar was another beach day. Today I expanded my walk to 90 minutes, thus I was able to see even more beached whales and even a few dinosaurs as well. Not a feast for the eyes, but par for the course. It was a very relaxing two days in Gava Del Mar, nothing to do but relax... the way vacations should be. The Spaniards loved being outside whether it be at a sidewalk cafe, riding a bike, just walking hand in hand or laying in the sand... I didn't mind it so much my self.

I'm reaching the home stretch with some long haul flights in the near distant future... Today I'm scheduled to fly to Franfurt where I'll stay for the night before heading to South Africa on July 31st (tomorrow)... this might change though so stay tuned!

Adios Espana!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dios Mio !!!

July 26, 2012
Amsterdam - Madrid - Barcelona
NH Hotel Schipol - ME Hotel Barcelona

Everything happens for a reason... thus when my 5:45am wake up call didn't come I knew I was in for a long day. My flight was scheduled to leave Amsterdam at 7:30am and my eyes first opened at 7:08am. Being that I wasn't sleeping at the airport and rather a hotel 10 minutes away, I knew I had no chance to make it.

I immediately used SKYPE to call American Airlines, because as every good traveller knows, if you don't cancel your flight before departure than you may forfeit it's value. So after a nice 20 minute conversation with someone in Dallas who was working the graveyard shift, she had changed my flight... I was now scheduled to depart 36hours later at 7:15pm on the 27th arriving in Barcelona at 8:10am on the 28th... thus I'd have to spend another night in Amsterdam and then the next night in Madrid... which isn't so bad, other than I'd already booked the room in Barcelona and it was non-refundable so it would have been a $300 probem.

So I get to the airport about 8:15am and make my way to the Iberia counter... there is no American Airlines ticket office in Amsterdam and thus it takes a phone call to change anything. Luckily Amsterdam airport has WIFI but it's not strong enough to get a good connection for SKYPE so after trying about 10 times to talk to an agent to see if something else opened up I gave up and made my way over to the adjacent Sheraton Aiport Hotel to see if their WIFI was any stronger.

The Sheraton has free public WIFI in the lobby and once again I make the SKYPE call and it goes through... except American Airlines can't hear me because it keeps buffering... strike 11 !

Luckily a very nice lady at the front desk felt some compassion for me and gave me the internet code for the "high speed" internet. This enabled me to actually SKYPE with American Airlines... the only caveat is that the WIFI only lasts 30 minutes and because of American Airlines computers working slow as usual we weren't able to finish the transaction in time and I was cut off.

So with my tail between my legs, I returned to the front desk and asked for an additional 30 minutes and she obliged. I think she was really feeling sorry for me and I was starting to feel sorry for myself as well. My next 30 minute internet voucher proved to be the winning ticket as I finally got confirmation that I could fly out tonight...albeit at 7:15pm with a night in Madrid before continuing on to Barcelona tomorrow morning.

I return to the airport and checked in EARLY for my 7:15pm flight and luckily the agent told me that she could move me up to the 12:15pm departure. Amen... luck was starting to shift. I checked my bag, as the intra-european airlines don't like the size of my carry on and made my way to the lounge (which was the worst of the trip) before getting to the gate and taking my seat 1C. Iberia provided a great lunch and I was feeling energized for my return to Espana.

We arrived at Madrid at 3:45pm and I knew there were about 8 more flights from Madrid to Barcelona (similar to the LA - SF) route. I just had to go to baggage claim, scoop up my "too-big" carry on and get to an Iberia counter to change my flight.

A detour was in my future. My bag never came and thus the adventure began. After waiting in line for 20 minutes the Iberia rep, who spoke zero English, (thank goodness I always practice my Spanish) had me fill out the requested information and he told me that he'd hopefully get me my luggage tonight. Highly unlikely...

It was now time to get my onward flight and another detour was in my future. The ticket that I'm on is somewhat flexible in that I can change date and time but I can never change destinations. The only problem is that if the airline doesn't have "award seats" available then there's nothing American Airlines can do. Being that I'm on Iberia, I was forced to once again track down an American Airlines agent to see if they could assist me.

Luckily, American Airlines does have a ticket office (and flights) at the Madrid Airport. Unluckily, it's only open from 6:30am - 12:00 noon. Thus I was forced to scramble once again. I either needed good WIFI for the dreaded SKYPE call or some divine intervention...

Divine intervention tried to show his head at the Iberia Sales office. The ladies were nice, I got to practice my Spanish and they gave me the local phone number and a phone for the American Airlines office in Madrid. After being on hold for 18 minutes I finally got to speak to a real live person and she confirmed my worst fear...the first "award seat" flight available was indeed on the 28th. It looks like I have two nights in Madrid, I'll lose two nights of prepaid rooms in Barcelona ($230) and I have no clothes to wear. My own damn fault... should have double checked my alarm!

It was now 5:15pm and I thanked the ticket agent and she also felt sorry for me and told me there was one last place I could go... the "Puente " (Madrid - Barcelona Shuttle). She told me (in Spanish) that it was near the foot bridge by McDonald's. I wondered for about 10 minutes before finding what she was talking about. I went up to the ticket agent and she gave me the puppy dog eyes and said "No problema". I was in a state of shock. Today I'd spent over 2 hours on SKYPE, 2 hours with ticket agents and I just show up at her counter and she tells me it won't be a problem.

She makes one phone call and within 30 seconds she prints out my boarding pass. She points to the window, tells me the flight is currently boarding and it's time for me to go. Dios Mio !!!

So to recap... it could have been way worse. I'm on schedule to Barcelona with no extra hotel expenses. Hopefully my bag arrives soon as all I have is my backpack which contains: flip flops, a pair of shoes, IPAD, gym shorts, and my chargers. So unless I plan to head to the nude beach (which I'm NOT!) I might need to purchase an "I LOVE BARCELONA" Tshirt and a Speedo... isn't that what they wear over here?