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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Goin' Where The Climate Suits My Clothes

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Goin' Where The Climate Suits My Clothes

Old Dec 26, 15, 3:00 am
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 9,670
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Goin' Where The Climate Suits My Clothes


I first started writing this trip report nine months ago. I got off to a pretty good start on it, too. At least initially. You’ll read timely accounts of First Class travel out to Hawaii and back, a steak dinner in Indiana and the surprisingly pleasant ride I had on a Greyhound bus up to Chicago. There I boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder to commence an eleven day, 9600 mile First Class rail excursion around the western United States. It was on the second day of that eleven day rail adventure that I got derailed, so to speak. I really like traveling by train and I was having such a good time that for the first time ever I fell into the trap of putting off my writing while thinking I could catch up further on down the line. It's a good thing I continued to take quality notes throughout because aside from keeping up with those notes, I put very little real work into this report for the duration of the trip.

Now I could have just bagged this report and none of you would have been the wiser. To be honest though, that thought never crossed my mind. Not only was this one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve ever taken, it was also one of the most exciting to put together. I knew early in the planning stages that this trip was developing into an itinerary that would qualify it as one of my most memorable trips - and by extension, trip reports - ever. There was never a question of not finishing this report. The itinerary was just too good not to.

While I’m proud of the reports that I’ve written here at Flyertalk, I’m equally proud of some of the incredible itineraries that I’ve come up with over the years. Many of my trips have incorporated premium class transport in planes and trains across multiple continents. Some of them have required multiple trip reports to describe the entire journey. Consider the following:

WINTER 2002 Alaska to New Zealand to Australia to Finland to Alaska to Canada to Las Vegas

Alaska to New Zealand – The Long Way via British Airways First Class
New Zealand Train Trip – Christchurch to Greymouth
From Te Anau to Tasmania via DC-3, 737, 767 & 717
From Tasmania to Alaska via Finland
Vancouver to Las Vegas via Newfoundland on Plane, Bus, Boat and Train
Six Days of Being Wined and Dined Above America

WINTER 2004 Alaska to Australia to London to Alaska to New York to Canada to South Africa to Alaska

Fairbanks to Kalgoorlie – The Long Way
From Tasmania to South Africa – In A Roundabout Way
The Desert Express – Luxury Train Travel in Namibia
From One Great Desert to Another – Namibia to Nevada

WINTER 2005 Alaska to South America to Canada to Hong Kong to Sydney to Darwin to Alaska

From the Top of North America to the Tip of South America
From the Bottom of South America to the Top of Australia
From Tasmania to Alaska – via Hong Kong

SPRING 2010 Six Trains on Six Continents

Part 1: North America, Europe, Africa, Australia
Part 2: Asia and South America

I’ve set a pretty high standard – if only for myself – in coming up with creative and wide ranging itineraries. I had a lot of practice growing up. When I was younger I used to take a copy of the OAG and conjure up all kinds of amazing itineraries. I envisioned myself on each and every one of those flights - in First Class of course - even though my monthly allowance wasn’t enough to even get me on a bus out of the state.

These days most of my trips start with an initial concept (I want to go to South Africa and drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg) and then I just let the creative juices flow. I’ve got an active imagination coupled with a better than average working knowledge of flights and routings. It also helps to have a sense of adventure. Like water flowing into cracks, I’m willing to explore any and all options. Just because I’m going to South Africa doesn’t mean I can’t swing over to South America if a good deal comes along. I’m like a kid in an amusement park. I came to ride the roller coaster but hey! That ride over there looks like fun, too. Let’s check it out!

Not everybody takes the same approach to travel that I do. Indeed, most people don’t. While there’ve been a few Seat 2Bs on shorter trips, the biggest potential problem for me traveling with others on these longer trips is my proclivity towards sudden changes, especially in the planning stages. Take this trip, for example. The original goal was to fly to South Africa and rent a car so I could better see and enjoy the wine districts, the Garden Coast and the Great Karoo. Who wouldn’t want to tag along for that trip? The problem likely would have arisen when I saw an opportunity to fly to South Africa via South America. The attraction was a 45000 mile Business Class award that would allow me to fly from Santiago, Chile to Cape Town via Bogota, Panama City, Sao Paulo and Johannesburg using two airlines I’d never flown before. One of the flights would be aboard a new 787 on an airline rarely reported on here. Who wouldn’t want to divert through South America to take advantage of a great opportunity like that? Well as it turns out, quite a few sensibly minded people, actually.

And then there’s the return trip. After being on the road for a month, most people would be looking forward to finally returning home – preferably via a direct route. Not me. Well, actually I was - sort of - but then I heard about the Flyertalk BBQ-Do in Kansas City and since it timed perfectly with my return to the U.S., I couldn’t resist working in a side trip to KC. And then the opportunity came up to work in a trip on the White Pass and Yukon narrow gauge train in Alaska. I couldn’t resist!

Truth be known, if I were to be traveling with someone else the real imposition would be on me, not them, because I would have held my tongue and never even have considered proposing such craziness. Seriously, I know I’m impulsive when I’m traveling but I have to say it’s resulted in some wonderfully grand adventures. If I were traveling with someone else, an itinerary such as I’m about to embark upon now would likely never have happened and hey – if that weren’t a missed opportunity, I don’t know what would be.

When you’re on your own you can do whatever you want. A friend of mine once pointed out how many well-known travelers and travel writers tended to travel alone. Theroux, O’Hanlon, Stevenson, Danziger, Cahill, Bryson et al. Some of the crazy (and impressive) things they did on their travels would likely never have been accomplished had they been obliged to arrive at a group consensus beforehand.

So as nice as it would be to have a partner in my travels, it’s nicer yet to have my independence. That way if I suddenly want to divert to California for a couple of concerts or to Hawaii for breakfast, I’ll have no one to answer to but myself.

As for you, dear readers, rather than having to slog through a comparatively bland report of roundtrip travel from Alaska to South Africa, you’ll instead be treated to a combination of text and photos detailing one of the best and most varied itineraries I’ve ever submitted to the Trip Report forum. Much like a master chef whipping up a magnificent repast from a pantry of exotic and flavorful ingredients, the itinerary I’ve put together for your dining – er, reading pleasure will be very much like a jambalaya – a mélange of different, flavorful ingredients that together create a delicious and memorable dish.

Amongst the quality ingredients I’ll be using for this adventure are an eleven day, 10000 mile rail odyssey around America, a road trip from southern to northern California, my 5000th flight in the form of a First Class Flagship Suite aboard American Airlines between Dallas and Santiago, Chile and a luxury bus excursion down to the beautiful island of Chiloe. This will be followed by a spicy quartet of Business Class flights between South America and South Africa, including a suite aboard Avianca’s new 787-800 and a 180° flatbed seat aboard South African Airways’ venerable A340-300 between Sao Paulo and Johannesburg. In Cape Town I’ve rented a car for a week long drive through the Stellenbosch and then up the Garden Route up to Port Elizabeth. A pair of First Class flights back to America with Emirates should bring this adventure to a satisfying close, followed by coffee and sweets in the form of the Kansas City BBQ Do and a ride on the White Pass & Yukon narrow gauge railroad out of Skagway, Alaska.

Mere pictures alone would never suffice to present the tale of my travels the way I want to tell them. I am first and foremost a writer, after all - or at least one who prefers to write. When it comes to reading, I like how the author Mary Karr puts it:

Reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin.

I strive to write in a style that allows you the reader to feel as if you’ve come along for the journey. Hopefully, as you’re reading this report into the wee hours of the night you’re right there with me in seat 2B as we enjoy cocktails and savories while climbing away from Sao Paulo enroute to Johannesburg, eight hours distant. Care for a refill on that Champagne? How about some more canapés…

That said, I also recognize that many people prefer the clean and uncluttered style found in a more photo oriented report. After all, it takes time to get through a report of this size, especially with all those darned words of which there are over 70000. I completely understand and as such might I suggest that you go back one page to the Trip Reports forum menu where you will find an enviable selection of excellent photo reports and shorter written reports to peruse.

As for the rest of youse, are you feeling hungry for a little adventure a la Seat 2A? Well then - go fetch yourselves a bottle of your favorite libation, take a seat at the table and settle back for the ride. Dinner is served.

PLEASE NOTE: The photographs in this report come in many sizes. In some cases this is because I have referenced some from past reports. In other cases I have no idea why they are differently sized. If this is not a problem, great. If it is, I’d appreciate some information on how to fix it. Thanks!

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jan 5, 16 at 11:30 pm
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Dec 26, 15, 3:02 am
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 9,670
March 23, 2015
Alaska Airlines Fairbanks to Seattle 535p – 1010p 737-800 Coach Class

There’s a lot of time involved in researching and putting together a trip of this size. It’s an activity I find exciting and yet relaxing at the same time. Early on in the process I create an itinerary that gets reviewed and refined and reviewed again on an almost daily basis. It’s all part of the anticipation process which is itself considerable in the days and weeks leading up to departure day.

Why is it then that whenever The Big Day finally arrives, I always have a pang of regret at leaving? It’s Alaska. I love this place and I love the rhythm of my life here. The land, the people, the culture – it’s home. Not just physically, but spiritually. I felt it when I first arrived as a young backpacker back in 1976 and over the years that bond has only grown stronger. Over the years I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to make plans to leave Alaska than it is to actually leave. A part of me never wants to leave, as if there’s a hidden fear that for some reason I might not return. I won’t say I can’t wait to get back because if there’s any solace to be taken from departing this time of year, it’s that I’ll miss the muddy, sloppy days of Spring Break-Up. As always though, it’s comforting to know that I have a roundtrip ticket.

My old pal Jack D did the honors in delivering me to the airport today. Jack works a two week on – two week off schedule driving big rigs up on the North Slope and while he’s gone I let him park in the open space under a big spruce tree outside my cabin. We’ve been delivering each other back and forth to Fairbanks International all year long with the tradeoff being either the favor of a ride to the airport or lunch at one of Fairbanks’ many fine Thai restaurants - or its one really good Mexican restaurant.

As usual, Alaska wasn’t gonna make it easy to leave. After a short week long cold snap at the beginning of the month, spring finally sprung about ten days ago with abundant sunshine and daily highs in the 40s and 50s. The ice has melted off the major roadways and with an additional seven minutes of sunlight gained each day the promise of spring and summer is almost tangible.

Today dawned sunny and clear, just perfect for me to get an early start on a long list of last minute chores that needed to get done. After all, this isn’t some two week ditty that I’m leaving on. It’s a six week 58000 mile TRIP with a capital T. I won’t bore you with all the pre-trip details – many of you have probably been through this yourselves. What I find amazing is that I started in on these chores a week ago in the hope that today might be more relaxing and yet here we are and I’m running around town like a man possessed. I’m pretty good though when I get focused and get my butt in gear – fifth gear as it were! As such I managed to move smoothly around town checking off each and every item on my To Do list before arriving home at 4:00pm with just enough time to heat up a kettle of water on the stove and grab a quick shower before Jack arrived to take me to the airport.

It is so nice to live in a town small enough that one need not arrive at the airport any more than an hour before departure. With no bags to check, I often arrive closer to 45 minutes out, then head straight through TSA Pre✓™ and on to the gate. Such was the case today. Ryan Bingham would’ve been proud of me.

It’s hard to believe that back in the days when airlines received government subsidies for providing service to smaller cities, Fairbanks was served by jets from Alaska, Northwest, Pan American and Wien Air Alaska – all at the same time. Post deregulation saw additional service from Delta, Frontier, Markair, Reno Air, United and Western. These days Alaska Airlines is the dominant carrier with about a dozen mostly daily flights. It’s joined by Ravn Alaska with a handful of Dash 8s to Anchorage and Barrow and Delta with a single daily nonstop to Seattle. When summer arrives we’ll see additional seasonal service, but this time of year things are pretty quiet out at FAI.

Taking off to the west, I watched as we soared into the clear blue skies above Fairbanks. It was a nice clear day and the views of the Tanana River and Chena Ridge were impressive. It’ll be exactly seven weeks until I return here in early May. In the interim I’ll have logged 47000 mostly premium class miles aboard eight airlines, ridden over 10000 miles aboard seven Amtrak streamliners and driven a further 2800 miles through some of the world’s prettiest landscapes. There’s no doubt about it: This is going to be a great trip!

Service started with a Bloody Mary accompanied by my own bag of Blue Diamond Jalapeño flavored almonds. Life is too short to suffer pretzel based snack mix regardless of what class of service you’re sat in. The hot dinner option on southbound flights this month was Alaska’s Louisiana Jambalaya, a dish featuring pork sausage, chicken, rice and Cajun spices. It’s not a bad meal as coach BOB meals go, but as ever the caterers were a bit light on the spices for my tastes. This I effectively remedied with two packets of Louisiana Hot Sauce gleaned from my last visit to Schlotsky’s Deli on Denver International’s A Concourse.

Alaska’s Louisiana Jambalaya Bowl

I should mention here that millions of miles of travel aboard all manner of conveyances all over the world have taught me the benefit of carrying along my own cache of spices. I like flavorful food, and my personal interpretation of flavorful tends to run on the hot and spicy side. Unfortunately, many people don’t share my tastes and so the caterers prepare their meals accordingly. For their part, the airlines either don’t provide any spices or the ones they do provide are of poor quality, such as basic bright yellow mustard better suited to a ballpark frank than a proper turkey sandwich.

The three hour flight passed quickly. Seatmate was an elderly lady who purchased Alaska’s new Digi-Player, watched a bit of a movie and then dozed off for the remainder of the flight. She looked so peaceful sleeping there that it seemed almost criminal when the flight attendant had to awaken her to reclaim the Digi-Player. As for me - I polished off dinner, updated my flight log and then finished reading the Fairbanks News Miner as well as the April edition of Airways Magazine.

Now I could go back and find out exactly how many nights I’ve spent over the years sleeping in Seattle’s airport, but I suspect that’s more information that most of you need or want. Suffice it to say that I’ve spent well over one hundred nights in this fine facility and it remains by far my favorite airport to overnight in. Tonight I set up camp in my usual spot and – after an hour or so of reading David Baldacci’s latest thriller – slept comfortably atop my Thermarest Pad until 7:30am.

March 24, 2015
Bolt Bus Seattle to Bellingham 100p – 300p
Alaska Airlines Seattle to San Francisco 620p – 928p 737-800 First Class

As was mentioned in the first part of this report, this trip has undergone many changes since the original concept of a week of driving around South Africa. One of the first changes was that instead of flying directly to South Africa via Cathay Pacific or British Airways, I decided to use an Alaska/American Airlines First Class award from Fairbanks down to Santiago with a stopover in San Francisco. From there I’d make my way over to South Africa via a United Business Class award. So - everything looked good to go until a couple of weeks ago when an Alaska Fast Dash Sale went and offered Bellingham to Honolulu flights for just $149.00 each way. Anybody here remember Marty Feldman? From the old Mel Brooks films? Well that’s the way my eyes looked when presented with such a great fare and the prospect of routing via Hawaii. So I got to thinking…

Hmm… I’m already paying $155.00 for a one way ticket from Seattle to Kansas City in May… I wonder if I could start this South America award from Hawaii instead of Alaska? A quick call to Alaska’s Partner Desk confirmed that I could, with no additional mileage redemption. Right on! Well then, perhaps I could use a one way saver award from Fairbanks to Kansas City with a stopover in Seattle. From there I could find my way up to Bellingham and take advantage of that $149.00 fare to Hawaii and get a $6.00 refund in the process. Sure, I’ll be using an additional 12500 miles for that award to Kansas City but I’ll get some of that mileage back because of the longer flight to Honolulu (2710 miles vs. 1490 miles =1230miles longer = 2770 more total miles earned than the SEA-MCI flight). Additionally, I’ll log my first ever flight out of Bellingham plus get a First Class seat to and from Hawaii. Another call was made to Alaska’s partner desk to confirm it all up and voila! Here we are, waking up at SeaTac looking forward to a First Class seat to the Islands this evening.

Now then, how do I get up to Bellingham?

A bit of internet research quickly revealed a shuttle offering a straight shot from Seattle directly to the Bellingham Airport for just $37.00. Call me a penny pincher if you will but I thought that seemed a tad expensive. How about Amtrak? Train fare came to $21.00 but as the Amtrak station was about tem miles from the airport, I’d have to add on $2.00 for the city bus to get me closer and then another $10.00 or so for the taxi the rest of the way to the airport. Jeesh! I might as well take the shuttle! What about Greyhound? Oh yeah! $9.00 one way! Still, they dropped off at the same place as Amtrak and not only that but their bus didn’t arrive into Bellingham until 4:30pm – less than two hours before flight time. When you add in the time required for the city bus and taxi combo, I felt that was cutting it a bit closer than I’d like. You know, I love a good hunt though and like a bulldog on a sock, I kept at it until lo and behold – what should I come across but a link to the BoltBus. Their one way rate was the same as Greyhound’s but on a bus that was Wi-Fi equipped with more legroom. Best of all, it dropped off at the Cordata Transit Center – just three miles and a $10.00 taxi ride from the airport. Book it, Danno!

Although I’d seen BoltBus’ bright red and black busses before, I was unaware they operated any farther north than Seattle. I was aware that they offered a premium class product – at least by American bus standards. That translates to an extra inch and a half of seat pitch with Wi-Fi and 120-volt power outlets at most seats. The seats themselves are leather and come with armrests, footrests, seat belts and cup holders. Overall it’s a nice product that helps make bus travel across this big broad land of ours just a bit more bearable.

BoltBus’ sole Seattle stop is conveniently located just around the corner from the International District Station serving Seattle’s busses and light rail. It’s just one block off China Town though from what I could see it appeared that the Koreans had the area closest to the station pretty well under their control. While drooling over pictures of nicely presented Korean food posted in the window at one restaurant, I found myself wishing that I hadn’t had breakfast up in the University District just a couple hours earlier.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say about the ride other than we left on time, we arrived on time, the seat was comfortable and the driver was very polite and informative. As inexpensive inter-city transportation of any stripe goes, that’s about as good as it gets. Well done, BoltBus!

A ten minute cab ride later, I was dropped off at Bellingham International Airport. This would be the first time I’d ever flown out of BLI, making it my 300th airport. That’s a lot of airports to be flown into or out of and while there probably ought to be some kind of an award for reaching this milestone, the most I’ll probably ever get is a wary look and a quick change of subject.

The wary look is pretty much the same response I’ve gottern when people have asked how long I’ll be in Hawaii.
“Oh, just overnight” I reply.
“Whaaaat? You’re gonna fly all the way over there and just stay one night?”
“Where’re you going to stay?”
“In the airport.”

This usually elicits the full wide eyed look of open mouthed astonishment, soon to be replaced by the dawning realization that they just might be dealing with someone whose elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top . Try to keep him calm… don’t make any sudden moves…

But look, here’s the deal: As everyone here already knows I actually enjoy flying and this particular run to Hawaii is all about two things – acquiring a nice chunk of mileage for a good price and checking out Alaska’s First Class service to Hawaii which prior to this trip I’d never experienced. Other than that I’ve made over 40 trips to Hawaii since 1976, spent a combined total of about three months in the islands, and don’t really feel at all put out that I won’t be spending any time there on this trip. After all, we’re talking Honolulu here, not the remote and beautiful shores of Molokai. We’re also talking 2015 vs. 1980.

I am so thankful that I got to spend most of my time in Hawaii 30-40 years ago when it was a lot more relaxed and just plain more civilized. Now it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a statement like that might be cause some of our 25 to 40 year old readers to write me off as some stuffy old fart who’s stuck in the old days. That’s fine – demagoguery doesn’t suit me well anyways - but let’s just say that I’ve been there back then - they haven’t - and when it comes to overall quality of life, from my perspective at least there simply is no comparison. That said, when it comes to what’s left of Polynesian paradises these days, where I’d really like to spend a week or two is in the Marquesas Islands or the Gambiers – far away from the maddening crush of overpriced tourism that is Hawaii today.

So getting back to the here and now, here I am sitting in the Bellingham airport bar savoring a tasty Elysian IPA whilst awaiting the call to board. My plane is parked just outside on the tarmac and my – doesn’t she look inviting in the setting sun! I love flying off into the sunset and this flight – with a 6:20pm departure – couldn’t be better timed. The load was light – I’d say we were only about half full – and so boarding wasn’t announced until about 30 minutes out. There are no jetways at BLI so I made sure to keep my camera out and available as I strode across the tarmac and up into my waiting 737-800. It was a beautiful spring evening and the airplane looked most alluring in the setting sun.

Your steed awaits

I love a half full airplane! Back in the 1970s the average load factor was 58% plus or minus a few single digit percentage points depending on the time of year. That meant that more often than not you were going to have the middle seat empty. When I had my yearlong First Class pass on United back in 1985/86, it was not at all uncommon to see empty seats in First Class, including aboard flights to Hawaii. Tonight there were two empty seats up front and one of them was next to me. By today’s standards in U.S. airline First Class, that is true luxury!

No sooner had I stowed my carry-on bag than a flight attendant approached and asked if I’d like my jacket hung. Shortly thereafter another showed up with a tray of Mai Tais and Guava Juice Cocktails. Oooo… Mai Tai please! I love Mai Tais, even if they should come with a shot of insulin. And no, I’m not diabetic but if I were to drink as many of those fruity tropical concoctions as I’d like to I’d probably be at serious risk of developing that insidious malady.

Pre-Departure Mai Tai

Given our light load, boarding proceeded apace which allowed us to button ‘er up and get our bird up in the air ten minutes earlier than scheduled. Following a 31 second takeoff roll, we did just that. I had relocated over to the empty window seat just prior to departure and enjoyed a pretty view of the San Juan Islands as we climbed away from Bellingham.

San Juan Islands at Dusk

This was my first flight to Hawaii with Alaska Airlines and consequently my first flight across the Pacific aboard a 737. I’ve logged over 100 flights into or out of Honolulu from either the U.S. mainland or a variety of South Pacific locations. Of those flights, only five – including this one - have been aboard narrow bodied airplanes. The other four were aboard Northwest 757-300s back in 2006. Now while the 737 has proven to be a reliable and efficient aircraft for ETOPS operations over to Hawaii, somehow it just feels better to be flying to Hawaii in a larger airplane – in much the same way that it feels better to be delivered to your wedding in a limousine as opposed to a Ford Fusion.

But hey, who’s complaining? Here I am sitting in the lap of what passes for luxury aboard U.S. domestic flights these days, sipping on my second Mai Tai whilst tapping away at this trip report on a fully charged computer. The menu for tonight’s dinner service was just delivered moments ago. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Sunset over the Pacific
A nice view to accompany my dinner deliberations

Bellingham to Honolulu

Warm Potato Salad served atop Fresh Baby Spinach
Accented with Green Onion and Beecher’s Flagship Crumbles
Warm Hawaiian Sweet Roll

Choice of Entrees

Trident Alaska Cod with Black Bean Sauce
Presented with Steamed Calrose Rice and Yu Choy


Kalbi Beef Ribs in a Korean Barbecue Sauce
Served with Wasabi Mashed Potatoes and Bok Choy with Sesame Seeds

Chuckanut Ginger Pear Cheesecake

Cod again! I swear, Alaska Airlines must have gone out and bought Trident Seafood, or at the very least hedged on cod production for the next five years! It’s not so much that I dislike cod as it is that I’m starting to dislike it after having had it served so regularly over the past two years on Alaska. Enough already! Thankfully I’m lodged here in 2D where the odds against being stuck with cod on tonight’s flight are decisively in my favor.

Brad, the flight attendant serving the forward cabin this evening, did a superb job in every aspect of the service. He delivered our drinks in a timely fashion, patiently explained the menu options to one and all, and generally did his best to provide a gracious service. He clearly took pride in and enjoyed his work and it really showed. Guys like Brad go a long way toward diminishing the sting of the many cutbacks inflicted upon Alaska’s once fine inflight product of years past.

Interestingly, because there are no inflight catering facilities in Bellingham, this flight is catered out of Las Vegas from whence the aircraft originated earlier this afternoon. Unfortunately, tonight’s meal was cheapened by some shoddy work from those caterers.

It started with the appetizer. Unfortunately the caterers had neglected to provide any dressing and so what was described on the menu as a warm potato salad atop baby spinach was in reality a few small wedges of boiled potatoes atop a pile of full grown spinach leaves, or at the very least late stage adolescent leaves. I emptied my salt and pepper packets onto the potatoes and made the best of it. The accompanying “Warm Hawaiian Sweet Roll” was a 10¢ white bread dinner roll served cabin temperature.

Potato Salad served atop Fresh Baby Spinach

The Kalbi Beef Ribs looked decent enough on the plate though the texture of the meat had me wondering if it might be something other than beef ribs. Given the shortcomings already exhibited by the Las Vegas based caterers, I thought it possible that the meat may have come from a locally sourced animal that was smaller and tougher than a cow, such as a javelina or a coyote. The portion size was decent though, and the meat was cooked just shy of medium well. What little I could taste of barbecue flavor suggested that it had been applied with an atomizer rather than a brush.

Kalbi Beef Ribs in a Korean Barbecue Sauce

Brad apologized that the ginger pear flavored cheesecake was not as advertised, nor was it made by Bellingham based Chuckanut Cheesecake Co. It tasted more like butterscotch to me though overall I thought it was pretty good. It was accompanied by plump red raspberries and with the addition of coffee and Baileys it became downright decadent.

Butterscotch Cheesecake with Raspberries

As six hour flights go, this one passed by fairly quickly. I put in a bit of work on this report, took a couple of laps to the back of the plane and had fun chatting with Brad about aviation in general. Like me, he was a subscriber to Airways Magazine and we compared thoughts on the new format and checked out the latest issue which I just happened to have along with me.

It was a nice clear night as we made our approach into Honolulu. I moved over to the window seat and took in the view as we flew low along the shore off Honolulu. Our landing was out on the reef runway and resulted in about a ten minute taxi into the gate but also allowed me that much more time to check out some of the airliners in town. Alas, the quality of plane watching at HNL has diminished considerably with the advent of longer range jetliners. It used to be that all of the Asian and South Pacific carriers stopped in here for fuel. Late night arrivals would include all manner of 747 classics and DC-10s from the likes of Qantas, Pan Am, CP Air, Air New Zealand, Philippine, Air Pacific, Continental and Singapore. Two of my favorite sightings from back then were a pair of Boeing 707s wearing the colorful liveries of South Pacific Island Airways and Samoa Airlines. DC-8-62s from Hawaiian Air and Pacific East Airlines were also cause for excitement.

With tomorrow’s flight to Oakland not scheduled to depart until 2:10pm, I would love to have gotten a hotel for the night. Unfortunately the least expensive airport hotel was over $150.00 per night! Were I to have headed into Waikiki I could have gotten a room for about $90 but then I’d also have to add on another $30.00 for the roundtrip hotel shuttle since the city busses will not allow any carry-on bags that won’t fit under the seat. The privacy of four walls and a bed is just not worth that much to me when I’ve got a perfectly good airport floor to sleep on.

Most of Honolulu’s airport is open air and there are limitations on where you can sleep. I discussed my situation with an airport security guard and then spent a good half hour walking around the main part of the terminal reconnoitering my options. My main criteria were finding a place that was out of sight and out of the light. The last time I slept in this airport was back in the seventies and there were lots of places that fit the bill. Post 911 security protocols have eliminated most of the dark areas but eventually I found a secluded patch of linoleum floor behind a money exchange kiosk and set up camp for the night.

I was a bit concerned that it might be too warm for a northern guy like me to sleep comfortably but the air cooled off nicely and by the time 1am rolled around I was glad that I had brought my big wool blanket along.

March 25, 2015
Alaska Airlines Honolulu to Oakland 210p – 1028p 737-800 First Class

Amazingly, I slept undisturbed until 7:30am. That’s 10:30am Pacific time, so I really caught up on lost sleep! I quickly broke camp and made my way to a deserted restroom on the lower level where I washed up and changed into a light cotton Hawaiian print shirt that I picked up at a thrift shop in Fairbanks, Alaska of all places.

Proceeding outside, I then caught a free shuttle over to the Honolulu Airport Hotel and took a table poolside at the Willoughby Restaurant where a delicious breakfast of Eggs Benedict and a copy of that morning’s Honolulu Advertiser brought me up to speed on the past day’s events.

Arriving back to the airport at 11:30, I cleared the agriculture and security checks and then headed down the concourse to the Delta Sky Club. Air conditioning, veggies and dip, a good internet connection, more air conditioning, a Bloody Mary – Ah…

Imagine then my continuing delight upon discovering that this afternoon’s flight to Oakland was assigned gate 13, just a short stroll across the concourse from the Sky Club.

Life is good – even if I get to spend only a few hours in Hawaii this time. Taking solace in the fact that I’ll be back here in the fall, I gathered my gear and joined the crowd awaiting the call to board the shiny blue and white jetliner with the lei adorned Eskimo on the tail. Unlike yesterday’s half-full flight from Bellingham, every seat was taken aboard this Oakland bound 737-800. Boarding was the usual chaotic affair with a big glut of First Class, 75Ks and Golds all surging through a tangled assortment of children, shopping bags and colorfully clad gate crashers as we struggled toward the narrow hallway leading to the jetway.

Once the initial crush of humanity had settled in, our First Class flight attendant made the rounds with a tray of Champagne and Papaya Juice Mimosas. They were deliciously chilled and really took the edge off the heat and general craziness of the boarding process.

We were twenty minutes into the flight when menus were delivered and drink orders taken. A Bloody Mary for seatmate and the same for me, thanks. Seatmate was involved in the bounty hunting business and currently was working with Dawg The Bounty Hunter while he and his team were filming in Hawaii. We had fun chatting about some of the more amusing people her team had brought to justice before finally turning our attention to the menus for tonight’s dinner service.

Hmm… these offerings look pretty good… What d’ya think? The Thai chicken or the pork chop?

Honolulu to Oakland

Duck Spring Roll with Hoisin Sauce
Warm Hawaiian Sweet Roll

Choice of Entrees

Thai Barbecue Chicken
Curry Fried Rice
Sautéed Mixed Vegetables

Apple Glazed Pork Chop with Macadamia Nuts
Roasted Red Potatoes
Grilled Yellow and Red Peppers

Hawaiian Bread Pudding

Although the drink orders were taken expeditiously, the rest of the service continued at a glacial pace. This was surprising because for the most part the flight was very smooth. We were 55 minutes into the flight before our drinks finally arrived. At least the mixed nuts were warm!

The spring roll appetizer was surprisingly large – especially by Alaska Airlines standards. It was also quite good, though both seatmate and I agreed that a bit more Hoisin sauce would have been nice – especially had it been presented in a small bowl for dipping.

Duck Spring Roll with Hoisin Sauce

So far as I know, the term “Piece de resistance” is generally reserved for the final course - dessert. Still, in both presentation and taste the Apple Glazed Pork Chop with Macadamia Nuts that we were served this evening was as attractive and tempting as any dessert I’ve ever been presented. Indeed, that pork chop just might qualify as the best main course I’ve ever been served on Alaska. Moist and flavorful with lots of Macadamia nut crumbles, it was a real masterpiece. Here’s hoping it goes undetected by Alaska’s ever so thrifty bean counters because it’s a decently sized portion and with all those macadamia nuts it’s got to be one of the more expensive entrées offered by Alaska. On the other hand, if word gets out that Alaska’s serving meals this good out of Honolulu, maybe they’ll start attracting a few more full fare F revenue customers on their flights out of Honolulu. Maybe…

Apple Glazed Pork Chop with Macadamia Nuts

Oh yeah, dessert – it was also very good. For me at least the key factor in a good bread pudding is that it’s moist. A very close second is that it’s also flavorful. Alaska scored well on both counts. The only downer was the accompanying coffee.

Hawaiian Bread Pudding

Once again I had asked for coffee and Bailey’s but this time it was presented on the cool side of tepid. How is it that last night I get a flight attendant who manages to serve us drinks and meals in a timely manner as well as present me not one but two piping hot coffees with Bailey’s while tonight I get a laggardly service and a luke warm cup of coffee? Based upon almost 5 million miles worth of flying – over one point three million of which have come aboard Alaska Airlines – my flight attendant tonight would appear to have been a slacker. It’s really unfortunate that people like this slip through the cracks because they ultimately besmirch the fine work of all those good people who do put forth the effort to provide a quality service. I wondered how his fellow flight attendants feel about inferior effort like this when they see it. Do any of them ever counsel guys like this to step up their game? I suppose I’m also guilty to some extent because I’m generally not one to write in a complaint about stuff like this unless it’s particularly egregious. That said, I can’t help but wonder how often Alaska follows up on customer complaints about the quality of a given individual’s service. Given how finicky and unrealistic some passengers can be when it comes to service, I suspect the airline takes many of these reports with a large grain of salt.

The remainder of the flight passed quickly. Pushed along by a stiff 60 knot tailwind, we cruised into Oakland twenty minutes early. Unfortunately Alaska’s gate is at the very end of a rather long concourse but I took a small measure of consolation when considering the exercise benefits. I hiked on down to the airport entrance where an old friend was waiting with his new Toyota Tacoma pick-up.

March 26, 2015
Alaska Airlines Oakland to Seattle 110p – 312p 737-900 Coach Class

Well it was a quick layover, but I got to sleep in an actual bed and was treated to a delicious fruit smoothie in the morning. Additionally, we’ll be getting together in a couple of weeks at the Dark Star Orchestra’s concert down in Paso Robles. More on that later though…

I was dropped off at BART’s Fremont station and – due to an electrical malfunction up by Hayward – barely made it to the Oakland Airport in time for my 1:10pm departure to Seattle. On a positive note – kind of – BART trains now go directly to the Oakland airport terminal. Unfortunately, the new connector train between the Oakland Coliseum and the Airport moves at the speed of a children’s amusement park ride and so my journey to the airport was a little slower than I’d anticipated. The old van service was probably 3-4 minutes faster.

Anyone here remember that old 70s Van McCoy disco hit “The Hustle!”? Whaaaat? Only five of youse?! Well that tune was reverberating about my head as I hustled my way on down the concourse to gate 14. My reward for arriving on time was ship 403, a shiny new 737-990ER that I’d not yet flown upon.

Some of you may recall that I log my flights. Part of that process includes noting the aircraft registrations. Well after having flown upon a good number of different aircraft from the same airline, it’s only natural that one might be curious as to how many of that airline’s aircraft one has actually flown. At least for me it is. It’s downright exhilarating to find out that I’ve finally flown every DC-10 in Continental’s fleet or every DC-8-71 in both Delta’s and United’s fleets. In Alaska’s case I’ve flown just about every aircraft in their fleet – all of the 737-400s, all the -700s and all but three of the -800s. There was a time that I’d flown all twelve of Alaska’s 737-900s but then they started taking delivery of their new -900ERs. Now I’ve flown 25 out of the total fleet of 35 737-900s. Collect them all, I say!

This flight was sold out and my flight attendant expressed surprise at finding a 75K way back in row 31. That’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes though. At least I had an aisle seat. Things improved considerably for me when upon arrival in Seattle I was able to cancel my reservation aboard the midnight flight to Chicago and rebook aboard a flight departing the next morning at the much more civilized hour of 8:30am. As such, I promptly booked myself a room at the Comfort Inn & Suites, thereby adding an additional 500 miles to my Amtrak Guest Rewards account.

March 27, 2015
Alaska Airlines Seattle to Chicago 830a – 227p 737-900 First Class
Amtrak Chicago to Indianapolis 550p – 1010p Hoosier State Coach Class

Woo-Hoo! Check off yet another 737-900 from the list of Alaska jets yet to be flown. I took my seat in 4D, gratefully accepted a cup of piping hot coffee and settled in for this three hour and twenty-two minute flight to the Windy City.

Seattle to Chicago rates Mid-con catering from Alaska which on this day translated to a plate of scrambled eggs with chicken link sausage and grits. A small cherry tomato half accented the scrambled eggs. Missing was any form of breakfast bread. Apparently it’s not catered as part of the mid-con breakfast service, so remind me to bring along a bagel or a biscuit next time I’m flying this route in the morning.

Alaska’s MidCon Scrambled Eggs Breakfast

Plates were cleared and a fresh cup of coffee was delivered. Seatmate was wrapped up in his movie and due to cloud cover there was nothing to see out my window. What better time to put in some work on a lengthy trip report than when cruising high above “Fly Over” country? Especially when it’s cloudy. Let’s do it!

Having authored seventy-two of these things – and some pretty long ones at that – I can tell you on good authority that one of the most important ingredients to a successful trip report writing campaign is diligence. Take advantage of those times when there’s nothing better to do and get to work on that report! In my case I’ve got a bit of an advantage in that I actually like to write. Not everyone does. I look at some of the reports posted here on FlyerTalk and sometimes it takes only a few paragraphs before I’m left with the overwhelming suspicion that all the author really wants to do is show off that they were flying First Class on XYZ Airlines. That’s not to say that most readers here are necessarily put off by a motive so simplistic a and self-serving but, if the primary passion in writing an accounting of your flight is “Look at me!” rather than a sincere appreciation for experiencing and describing the myriad vicissitudes of international standard premium class service, it really shows up in the quality of the writing and/or the photographs. At least to me it does.

Another nasty side effect of not fully committing to the task of trip reporting is that the author starts off full of vim and vigor but then slowly fades as the actual act of writing and reporting become more and more of an unwelcome chore. But then really, how many guys especially ever really sit down and write anything more intensive than a grocery list these days? Some of us do, sure, but a lot more of us don’t. Especially when it’s about something that carries as much geek stigma as describing your First Class service or transcribing a menu. At this point a lot of these folks will just muddle through the rest of the report or worse – not even bother to finish it.

Therein lies the strategy behind my approach to trip reporting. Today is April 2nd. As I sit here writing this while speeding across the arid plains of West Texas, none of you are even aware that I’m writing this report. That being the case, in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure or if for whatever other reason I might decide to bag this report, none of you would ever be any the wiser. Truth be known, I have scuttled two or three domestic reports that just didn’t feel like they were translating nicely into a trip report. But again, because they weren’t incremental, nobody was left disappointed.

Of course by submitting my reports all at once I lose out on all those ego boosting “Atta boy” comments that come with an incremental report, but then most of those comments say little more than “Really loving your report so far! Can’t wait ‘til the next installment!”. Don’t get me wrong here - the fact that anyone would feel moved enough by my style of writing and/or reporting to actually take the time to write a comment of any type is very much appreciated but for me at least the most treasured comments come from those who have actually committed to reading most or all of my report and – after all that - still feel it was worthy of a comment.

(Author's Note: As to the above four paragraphs which were written back when I was still current - I leave them in there solely for entertainment value given that this report wasn't finally completed until seven months after the last flight was flown.)

* * * --- * * *

Drink glasses were collected and trip reports put on hold as we descended through a cold and clear Illinois sky to a smooth touchdown on one of O’Hare’s more distant runways. Following a good ten minute taxi into our gate at L-8, I commenced the long journey up the length of the concourse to the main terminal, then downstairs and halfway across the building to the escalator down to the people mover walkway that took us under the arrivals road and ended at the CTA’s O’Hare terminus, itself located across the street from the O’Hare Hilton. It’s maybe a half mile walk.

There are quite a few people who for any number of reasons (too much baggage, discomfort with using public transit, etc.) will pay $28.00 or more to go into downtown Chicago via taxi or limousine. To each their own I reckon but for just $5.00 and 45 minutes of my time the CTA train delivered me to within two blocks of Chicago’s Union Station. The money saved went toward purchasing an electric heating pad and a nice burrito in the Union Station food court.

Amtrak’s Hoosier State is essentially a reserved seat commuter train operating between Chicago and Indianapolis. Aside from a comfortable reclining seat, there were no dining or beverage services available on board. For the short three hour ride down to Lafayette it was just fine, leaving on time and arriving into Lafayette ten minutes early.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Feb 4, 16 at 3:02 pm
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Dec 26, 15, 3:05 am
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
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March 29, 2015
Greyhound Lafayette to Chicago 930a – 1050a Bus
Amtrak Chicago to Portland 215p – 1010a +2 Empire Builder First Class

I spent a fun weekend visiting a fellow Denali driver and watching some exciting college basketball while enjoying fine food and drink to excess…

Fine Food


An enviable selection of bourbons for one night

It was now time to move on to the rail travel portion of this adventure. Over the next eleven days I will be riding seven trains over 10000 miles through nineteen states. I’ll spend nine nights onboard while enjoying twenty-three meals in the dining car. For a guy who likes to ride trains, I fully expect the next few days to be a lot of fun.

I suppose I could have started this trip aboard Amtrak’s Hoosier State between Lafayette and Chicago but its 730am departure was a bit earlier than I like for vacation travel. Thankfully Greyhound offered a more leisurely 930am departure operating nonstop to downtown Chicago. At just $18.50 one way, the price was right and so it was that I was dropped off at 300 E. 2nd Ave. on a clear but chilly morning to board my shiny new Wi-Fi equipped motor coach for the two hour journey up to The Big City.

Greyhound’s New Dog

For many of us, a ride on the Grey Dog is tantamount to life’s having thrown us a curveball. To be sure, ridin’ the dog is usually the least expensive transport option and as such comes with the least amount of creature comforts. Unless you’re truly down on your luck, why would you not travel aboard something a bit faster or more comfortable?

It should be noted here that Greyhound is the largest provider of intercity bus transportation in North America, serving more than 3,800 destinations across the continent. Between many small to medium sized towns and cities it represents the only means of direct transport. In the case of Lafayette, Indiana to Chicago, Greyhound offers four daily departures to Amtrak’s one. Additionally, the express busses get up to Chicago an hour faster than the train with only a marginal drop off in comfort. My 930am departure was branded as Greyhound Express service and included free Wi-Fi, power outlets and extra legroom.

This is still Greyhound however, and unfortunately a significant number of its traditional clientele are still trying to come to grips with civilized behavior in a public setting. As such we were issued the usual warnings about alcohol and drug use onboard the bus as well as the requirement to use headphones when listening to music. Beyond that, it was a nice ride and we pulled into the Chicago Terminal ten minutes early. Way to go, Greyhound!

* * * _ * _ * * *

We’re going to commence this eleven day grand rail extravaganza with a 2,257 mile ride aboard Amtrak’s famous Empire Builder. I think this is a great train to start out with if only because the Empire Builder is the most popular long-distance train in the Amtrak system. It carries an average of about 500,000 riders per year from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest via Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. The line splits at Spokane, Washington with half of the train continuing on across the Cascade Mountains to Seattle, Washington while the other half heads southwest down the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon.

Route of The Empire Builder

Chicago’s Union Station is massive, taking up approximately nine and a half city blocks. Built in the popular Beaux-Arts style seen in stations at Kansas City, St. Louis and Denver to name just a few, Union Station is known for its distinctive Corinthian columns and magnificent Great Hall. The station was recently designated as one of America’s “Great Places” by the American Planning Association and for those that have an hour or two between trains, it’s worth having a look around.

Chicago Union Station’s Great Hall

Passageway to trains flanked by grand stairways to street level

Distant corners of Chicago’s Union Station

Passengers traveling in First Class sleeper accommodations have access to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge. As lounges go, this one is nothing special. While it provides a quieter and more comfortable environment than that found out in the main gate lounges, amenities are limited to a baggage storage room and free Wi-Fi. The only refreshments available are coffee, soda, chips and sweet rolls (during the morning hours). Although it’ll never be confused with a proper airline lounge (even a U.S. airline lounge!) it does represent a considerable improvement over sitting out amongst the huddled masses in the crowded gate lounges.

Reception desk and food service area of Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge

Lounge seating in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge

While sat in the lounge, I overheard a man ask “What kind of name is “Empire Builder” for a train?”

That’s a good question. Many train names suggest a speedy journey or they highlight the destination. Consider the Silver Meteor, the California Zephyr, The City of New Orleans or the Broadway Limited. Still others evoke the romantic ambience of travel such as the Sunset Limited or the Coast Starlight.

The Empire Builder is named for James J. Hill, the president and founder of the Great Northern Railway. In the late 1800s Hill reorganized several failing railroads into the Great Northern and then extended the line to the Pacific Northwest. During his westward expansion he allowed immigrants (who had arrived mainly from Norway and Sweden) to travel across the country on his railroad for $10.00, with the stipulation that they agree to settle along the route. He even arranged for agriculture experts to teach them farming techniques applicable to the rough plains of North Dakota and Montana.

By encouraging the creation of settlements and towns along the Great Northern's route, Hill set the stage for the region's economic development in the production of agricultural and other products that his railroad would then carry to the rest of the country. In the process he became known as "The Empire Builder". The train that honors him was inaugurated by the Great Northern in 1929 and quickly displaced the Oriental Limited as the railroad's premier train.

* * * _ * _ * * *

Boarding for the Empire Builder was announced at 1:45pm, one half hour prior to departure. To avoid crowding on the platform, First Class passengers are boarded a few minutes before those traveling in Coach. We all gathered at the rear of the lounge where a uniformed Amtrak employee led us out to the train. The train had been backed into the station and as a result I didn’t have far to walk since my sleeping car was the very last car.

While this seemed initially fortuitous, I later discovered that with the train’s construction being built around the split in Spokane, my car ended up being separated from the lounge by two cars and from the diner by five cars! Here’s how the consist worked out:

Leading the charge with a combined total of 9000 horsepower were two GE P42 "Genesis" Locomotives. Following them – in order – was:

Baggage car (Seattle)
Transitional Crew Sleeper (Seattle)
Sleeper (Seattle)
Sleeper (Seattle)
Diner (Seattle)
Coach (Seattle)
Coach (Seattle)
Sightseer Lounge/Café (Portland)
Coach/Baggage (Portland)
Coach (Portland)
Sleeper (Portland)

I’ve noted the destinations of both Seattle and Portland bound cars so that you can better appreciate how much smaller the train that continues on to Portland becomes. We’ll be all of just four cars with no diner. More on that later though...

Waiting at the entrance to my sleeper was my car attendant Ray, a twenty-seven year veteran of Amtrak’s onboard services. In his possession was a manifest bearing the names of all his expected passengers between Chicago and Portland. My name was quickly located and checked against my ticket, after which I was directed to my accommodation – Room 11 – located downstairs and to the left.

Your car and room await

It should be noted here that each Amtrak bi-level Superliner Sleeper car offers 14 Roomettes, 5 Deluxe bedrooms, 1 Family bedroom and one Handicapped bedroom. Four roomettes along with the Family and Handicapped bedrooms are located downstairs. The roomettes measure 3’6” by 6’6” and are accessed via a sliding glass door. During the day they offer two wide opposite facing seats that fold together to become a bed at night. Above them is a fold-down upper berth. Other amenities include four separate lights, an electrical outlet, a tall mirror, a fold out table, a small open closet with hangers and a thermostat which I immediately turned to its lowest level. Best of all, each compartment has its own huge window, approximately 2½’ X 5’, through which to view the passing scenery. Toilet and shower facilities are down the hall. For a single traveler, I think these roomettes are quite sufficient and comfortable which is a good thing because they would be my home for the next four nights. At the top of the stairway is the service area for each car. In the morning, juice and coffee are available from this area.

Click HERE for a virtual tour of Amtrak’s Superliner Roomette.

Amtrak Roomette Seat

Amtrak Roomette Seats
The two seats lower and combine to create a 180° flat bed

Superliner Service Area

At my seat were two big fluffy pillows. On the center console where the table is stored were two bottles of water and a variety of pamphlets about the train. There was a route guide, a timetable, a safety card much like you’d see aboard an airliner and a brochure describing the train and its various services and attractions.

Although most people are excited about the prospect of a seat or bedroom high on the upper level of Amtrak’s Superliner fleet, I specifically choose a lower level room for two reasons. First, the downstairs rooms are quieter because there is much less foot traffic passing by your door. All the inter-car traffic is upstairs. As well, the train’s motion as it speeds down the tracks can occasionally make straight-line walking a challenge, causing some people to ricochet their way down the narrow hallways, bouncing off walls and doors with equal abandon. One sleeping car passenger complained that her arms were bruised after just one afternoon on the train. Secondly, riding in the lower level of the car results in much less tilt motion than is experienced on the upper levels. Like a fulcrum point on a seesaw, the ride is smoother the lower you are.

I hung my jacket and then grabbed my camera and stepped off the train for a couple of obligatory pre-trip photos. Train travel is exciting stuff with plenty of sights, sounds and smells to stimulate the senses. Boarding most airplanes these days has become a relatively sterile experience as you’re usually separated from your aircraft by large glass windows and a jet bridge. By comparison, you must walk up to and meet your train. It’s right there in front of you – big, silver and inviting of your inspection. Amtrak’s bi-level Superliner cars are especially large, towering above those of us down on the platform. Even at idle the big diesel locomotives are quite loud, emitting a variety of noises such as changes in rpms or the occasional short release of air.

The challenge for me is seeing if I can come up with photographs that might help you the reader better appreciate this trip as I experience it, but hopefully in an interesting way. Maybe I can catch that train car in an interesting light, like this:

Premier Class Car at Johannesburg

Unfortunately, the trackside lighting in the bowels of Chicago’s Union Station does not lend itself well to quality photography of train cars, much less anything else. This one, taken in an attempt to capture a bit of trackside ambience, didn’t turn out too badly though…

Welcome aboard Amtrak

One thing I don’t feel a need to do is have you experience every little thing I see no matter how mundane. It’s selfish, really, but I generally only take pictures of things that I personally find interesting. That means I won’t be providing you with pictures of things like the fold out table in each room, the closet, the light and climate controls, the toilets or the baggage storage area located on the lower level of the car. I know that many fans of photo reports crave that level of detail but given all the time I invest in actually writing this report, I’d rather try to employ photos that better capture the more interesting or important things that I’m writing about.

Trying is the operative word here because I don’t know anything about photography. I’ve never taken a class and I have not the slightest idea what an F stop or an aperture is. I just point my little Canon SX-160 and press the button. Hopefully what my photos lack in quantity they’ll make up for in quality of composition.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, trackside at Union Station – primed and ready to commence this eleven day rail tour of the American west. This is so exciting! There’s the “All Aboard!” call - Let’s re-board now and settle in for the journey.

Upon departing Chicago's Union Station the Empire Builder rolls north to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then on through the rural landscape of southern Wisconsin, crossing the Upper Mississippi River at La Crosse. I spent most of this portion of the trip in the lounge car. Pretty afternoon lighting highlighted the pleasant farmland and rolling plains of Wisconsin. The beige and yellow landscape contrasted nicely with the stormy skies above…

A pretty farm set against a stormy sky

Two girls kick back and enjoy the journey from the Sightseer Lounge

Early evening scenery

The sun sets as we speed west at 79 mph

Crossing the Mississippi at nightfall

As we continued northwest into southeastern Minnesota, I headed down to the lower level of the lounge car where a small café and a few tables are located. It was time for the first beer of the trip! In addition to the usual variety of uninspiring American pilsners, Amtrak also offers a couple of decent American microbrews. Truth be known, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company have grown large enough over the years that they can no longer truly be called microbrews but their Boston Lager and Pale Ale respectively taste vastly superior to anything put out by either Anhauser Busch or Miller Brewing Company.

Earlier in the afternoon I had made reservations with the Dining Car steward for the 6:30pm dinner seating. Dinner is by reservation only on all of Amtrak’s long distance trains. Typically three or four seatings are offered, ranging from as early as 5:30pm to as late as 7:30pm. Walk-ins are available after about 7:30. I generally like to eat in the middle of the pack as most everything is still available and besides, 6:30pm is pretty close to when I eat dinner at home.

Because the ratio of hungry passengers to available dining car seats is too high to allow for private tables, communal seating is the rule. People are generally seated with whoever shows up just before or after them, so it’s quite possible that you’ll end up with a diverse and occasionally colorful collection of tablemates. For my part I rather enjoy this aspect of traveling on Amtrak because it’s a great opportunity to meet some interesting people and hear their stories. As for myself – well, I’ve been to all 50 states many times over so with my fellow Americans I often share a point of reference and the conversation flows from there. Amtrak is also a great way for visitors from overseas to see America, so it’s always fun to meet these people and hear their perspective on where they’ve been and what they’ve seen.

My dinner companions tonight were a woman and her daughter who had just boarded the train in Milwaukee and were headed for Great Falls, Montana where they lived. They had gone to Wisconsin to attend the wedding of a family friend. Amtrak doesn’t serve Great Falls so they were getting off in Havre where they’d be met and driven the 110 miles down to Great Falls. Interestingly they’d originally purchased round trip tickets in coach but after meeting some sleeper car passengers on the trip out to Milwaukee and hearing about how much nicer it was to lie down at night and have all their meals included in the fare, they decided to upgrade to a roomette for the trip home.

The food on Amtrak’s long distance trains is good but hardly gourmet. Amtrak standardized its menu a couple of years ago in a cost cutting move and while the menu is not extensive it includes enough variety to satisfy the tastes of most reasonable people. Main courses always include a steak, chicken, vegetarian pasta and seafood or fish entrée. The only variant is a chef’s special which is usually a meat oriented dish. All entrees come with rice or a choice of baked or mashed potato and a side vegetable. A side salad is available for $3.00. Salads used to be included with the entrées but they were very basic – just a small bowl of head lettuce accented with a cherry tomato and maybe some shredded carrots now and then. The new $3.00 salads are larger and include onions, tomatoes, carrots and sometimes even a slice or two of green pepper.

You can click HERE to see a copy of the menu.

Sleeper car passengers may order whatever they like off the menu including sides and dessert. The only thing not included in the fare is alcohol. I ordered the Flatiron Steak and was generally pleased. I asked for medium rare and was presented a steak that was perfectly pinkish-red in the middle. The baked potato was nicely cooked and the side vegetables – a medley of steamed green beans, carrots and cauliflower - were acceptable. I passed on dessert knowing there’d be plenty of opportunities to indulge in the days ahead.

From Wisconsin the Empire Builder continues through southeastern Minnesota at speeds averaging 70 mph. While this might seem terribly slow to those accustomed to riding European or Asian trains, it’s a speed that is well suited to sightseeing along the way. As one who’s always placed greater value on natural rather than manmade attractions, I consider the ability to see the country up close a major selling point of rail travel, so I’m totally cool with cruising sedately along at 70 mph (110 kmh).

It was nearly dark when we crossed the Mississippi at Hastings. By then I was in the lounge car enjoying an after dinner glass of Jack Daniels on the rocks. Sleeper car passengers are allowed to bring their own liquor onboard, but only for consumption in their private compartments. I suppose I could have done that but then I’d be sitting there drinking all alone. Not my style. Often in the lounge car you get to chatting with one or more people and sometimes a drink or two is involved. I’d rather share a drink or two with fellow passengers discreetly from my $24.00 bottle than buy single airline style minis at $7.00 each plus tip.

As it turned out, by the time I headed back to the lounge car the scene was pretty quiet. This train was about two-thirds full and only a handful of people were upstairs in the lounge car, all of them engrossed in their own activities such as reading, listening to music or watching a movie. A family of four was playing a board game at one of the buffet tables and at another table a girl appeared to be working on her college assignment with books and papers spread out all over the table top. I could hear voices downstairs in the café but of course if you’re planning to illegally pour your own beverage, it’s probably best to stay well away from the bartender.

While I enjoy company, I don’t require it at all times and as such would never dream of foisting myself upon anyone just for the sake of a little socializing. Since I’d already arrived with a glass of ice from the dining car, I took a seat at an empty table, poured myself a healthy slug of JD and fired up my laptop. All of the buffet tables in the lounge are equipped with electrical outlets. Although no Wi-Fi is available on most of Amtrak’s long distance trains, I’ve got plenty of things to entertain me in my laptop.

It was approaching 10pm when an announcement was made that we’d soon be arriving at the Union Depot in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is the first service stop for the westbound Empire Builder, which means we’ll be here for about fifteen minutes while trash is emptied, food and ice are re-stocked and fuel is taken on. For smokers it’s an excellent opportunity to dash off the train and attend to their addictions. Smoke breaks can be few and often far between on Amtrak trains, so it’s not uncommon to find smokers clustered downstairs by the doorway as we pull into the station – poised and ready to leap off the train with cigarettes out and lighters in hand.

Shortly after departing St. Paul I decided to call it a night. Back in my car I arrived to find that Ray had already made up my room for the night. A fresh bottle of water had been thoughtfully left by the bed while the nightlight shone gently from above. I read for about 45 minutes before extinguishing the lights and slipping off into slumber.

Nighttime configuration of Amtrak’s Superliner Roomette


I awoke to sunshine, blue skies and the rolling plains of central North Dakota. Here and there small patches of wetlands could be seen, populated with a colorful variety of geese, ducks and other birds. We were cruising along at a pretty good pace – the maximum allowable speed for most Amtrak trains is 79 mph – and I thought it was just about the perfect speed to enjoy a landscape such as this. The high Plains are surprisingly pretty under a blue sky. The contrasts of beige, yellow, brown and blue worked very well for me. I paused to take a picture…

High Plains of North Dakota

Following a good hot shower, I made my way up to the diner for breakfast. It was quite a trek! As I mentioned earlier, this train splits into two sections at Spokane – one going to Seattle and one going to Portland. The Portland section is comprised of four cars – the lounge, two coaches and a single sleeper. It’s positioned at the end of the Seattle section which is comprised of two coaches, a diner and two sleepers. Later tonight in Spokane the Portland section will be detached from the main consist, a locomotive will be attached and off we will go down the Columbia River and on into Portland. More on that later though...

The single Portland bound sleeper is the very last car on this train. To get to the diner I had to pass through two Portland bound coaches, the Sightseer lounge car and two Seattle bound coaches before finally reaching the diner. By Amtrak standards this is quite a long walk! On all its other trains – none of which split – the diner is always located right next to the sleepers. In this way the dining room staff will know that if you enter the diner from one direction, your meals are complimentary. From the other direction you’ll have to pay.

Speaking of long walks aboard trains, the longest walks I ever experienced aboard a train was when I was a kid riding aboard Mexican trains back in the seventies. We used to get on in Mexicali and ride down to Empalme or Guadalajara aboard trains that were often 15-20 cars long. As sleeping car passengers we had the run of the train and it was fun to go out and explore. The Mexican trains of those days offered everything from First Class sleepers with lounges to decrepit old coaches with straight back school bus style seats. A few years ago I had some of my old slides digitalized. Here’s an old picture from one of my trips aboard a Mexican train…

Ferrocarriles del Pacifico

Interestingly, the longest train I ever rode on was in Australia aboard the famous Ghan. That train was thirty-four cars long! Unfortunately I was traveling in Red Kangaroo class – or economy class if you will – and our movement was limited to two coaches, a café car and a lounge. I took the two pictures below while standing at the station in Darwin…

The Ghan – Looking left

The Ghan – Looking right

But enough reminiscing. Let’s go get some breakfast!

My table companions this morning were a man from Kalispell returning home from a USA Railpass trip and two ladies headed to Minot from Minneapolis. We introduced ourselves and then opened our menus to consider the breakfast options. As we did so, our waiter delivered coffee and juice.

Breakfast in North Dakota at 79 mph

Empire Builder breakfast table setting

I described my penchant for photographing the setting and the meal by explaining that I had a young friend back home who was fascinated by trains – especially riding on trains - and so I promised to do my best to record this journey photographically. Of course I just make this stuff up as I go, and the explanation that I provided is a lot easier for most people to digest than the reality of it which is that here I am – a full grown man – taking pictures of the place setting and the meal.

That’s just weird!

Yeah, yeah, whatever… Honestly, I’m at a point in life – and have been for some time – where I don’t particularly care if people see me as strange because of innocuous activities like sleeping in airports or photographing food. The reason I give out explanations such as today’s is because it saves time. Instead of having to answer questions like “But why?” in which case the answer can often spiral off into life history and travels, it’s a lot easier to give people an answer that leaves them thinking “Well isn’t that nice.”. Then we can quickly move on to more entertaining subjects, like our current travels.

Howard returned to take our orders. He comes across as a bit of a surly old guy but I think he’s just being efficient in the best way he knows how. He’s got a lot of people to serve and he doesn’t have time for idle chit chat. Some servers do. One of the ladies commented on Howard’s demeanor and we all had a laugh at the idea of Howard embellishing any of the entrées, as in “We have a lovely vegetable omelette today…” Even though he was not overtly pleasant, he wasn’t rude either. The bottom line for me is he took our orders and served our meals in a timely fashion, and he was good about keeping our coffees topped off. Good job, Howard!

Vegetable Omelette with roasted potatoes and chicken sausage

In past reports I have published, some people have commented upon what they perceived to be poor quality food on Amtrak. I got the sense that most of these observations were issued from a vegetarian perspective. To be sure, vegetarian choices have rarely been the highlight of Amtrak’s menus but there is always some kind of a vegetarian option offered for each meal. Others are looking for healthier or low calorie options. As with vegetarian options, some low fat or lighter choices are also available for each meal.

Consider my breakfast today. As an alternative to bacon or pork sausage, the chicken sausage I accompanied my veggie omelette with was listed as having only 100 calories. I’ve no doubt I could have also requested less or even no cheese in my omelette. I did not butter my biscuit.

Anyone hoping to find a vegetarian oriented or predominantly low fat/low carb menu designed by some healthy hippies over at the Solar Winds Cooperative Café will of course be a bit disappointed, but I do believe most folks find Amtrak’s menu acceptable given the unique constraints of the dining environment. In terms of overall quality, I would rate the food as being on par with a Denny’s Restaurant. It’s not a gourmet experience, nor is it advertised to be.

* * * _ * _ * * *

After breakfast I returned to my roomette briefly to retrieve my daypack and laptop. With a full day of travel rolling across the Great Plains of North America, now seemed like a good time to take a seat at a table in the lounge car and put in some work on this report.

My car attendant Ray had already returned my roomette to its daytime configuration and was now working on my neighbors’ room. We got to chatting a bit and I asked him how long he’d been working for Amtrak. Like most car attendants, he’d accrued a quite a bit of seniority.

Ray got his start as a coach car attendant back in 1988. After fifteen long years of working the coach cars, he finally graduated to working the sleepers. I’m not sure if congratulations are in order because working the sleepers is a heck of a lot more intensive than working the coaches. Ray is responsible for the needs of up to forty passengers spread out amongst four different types of rooms. Those needs start with meeting and greeting them as they board the train, helping with luggage, making beds at night, breaking down beds in the morning, keeping the shower and toilets clean throughout the trip, delivering meals to rooms upon request and finally helping passengers off the train with their luggage. Somewhere amidst all of that he’s got to find time to eat and sleep.

We were running about five minutes early as we pulled into Minot at 8:25am. Amtrak trains aren’t allowed to leave early, so that meant an extra five minutes we’d have to mill around out on the platform. Smokers rejoiced as they now had enough time to smoke not one but two cigarettes! It was a beautiful sunny morning and judging by the crowds both trackside and in the comfortable little depot, I got the sense that the daily arrival of the Empire Builder was a big deal. Minot does have an airport that can handle aircraft as large as 757s but for regional travel – especially into western North Dakota and Montana – the Empire Builder offers convenient schedules and affordable fares.

Train time in Minot, North Dakota

The 2006 discovery of the Parshall Oil Field outside Williston, North Dakota combined with the ability to economically extract oil via horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing led to a significant increase in the number of crude oil and grain trains using the BNSF tracks in Montana and North Dakota. The resulting congestion contributed to horrendous delays for the Empire Builder, with the train receiving a paltry 44.5% on-time record for November 2013, the worst rating on the Amtrak network. In some cases, the delays resulted in an imbalance of crew and equipment, forcing Amtrak to cancel some runs of the train. In May 2014, only 26% of Empire Builder trains arrived within 30 minutes of their scheduled time, with delays averaging between 3 and 5 hours. As a result, Amtrak officially changed the scheduled times for station stops west of Minneapolis, changes which took effect on April 15, 2014. I had really looked forward to riding the Empire Builder during this time as it would have allowed me to see during daylight hours some of the pretty mountainous country west of Spokane. Unfortunately – or fortunately depending upon your perspective – Amtrak was recently able to work things out with the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe to all you air travelers out there) so that the Empire Builder was able to return to its traditional schedule.

For me one of the real attractions of train travel across America is a chance to meet the locals and through interaction with them gain a better understanding and appreciate the land and communities you’re traveling through. By contrast, on an airplane these days your window shade would likely be down, your ears covered in the latest noise cancelling Bose headphones and your attention drawn to the screen in front of you as you watched actors portraying roles of people and lifestyles far different from the lives of the people who live 35000 feet below you.

At lunch I was seated across from Bert and Marie, an older couple originally from Williston but now living in Minot. Bert made an interesting point about how with the boom, everything in Williston became more expensive - from real estate to food. Many people who had lived there a long time could hardly afford to live there anymore. Marie was thankful that they’d moved to Minot fifteen years earlier. Some of their friends still in Williston not only couldn’t afford to live there, they couldn’t afford to move away from there either!

I noticed that very few people on this train were traveling the full distance between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. There was lots of local traffic between Chicago/Milwaukee and Minneapolis as well as between towns in the North Dakota and Montana region.

In the land around Williston there are limestone rock formations more typical of the Badlands of South Dakota than the prairies of North Dakota. As we continued west into eastern Montana the terrain became ever more hilly, offset by shallow gulches and even the occasional mini-gorge. Ever so gradually rolling plains transitioned into low hills and buttes. You could sense the excitement of thru-passengers as the promise of travel through the Rocky Mountains was soon to be realized.

Low hills and buttes of eastern Montana

One thing I noticed as we sped through eastern Montana was a distinct lack of trees. Occasionally one or two cottonwoods would show up around an old farmhouse or a town but otherwise the land was barren.

It was 2:35pm when we pulled into Havre, Montana. Sitting at the approximate halfway point between Minneapolis and Seattle, Havre was founded primarily to be a service center for the Great Northern Railway. Up until the 1990s, the railroad was the primary employer in town and Havre remains a service center for the BNSF to this day. As such, we stopped first to take on fuel and then proceeded another 150 yards on to the large brick station building.

Back in the 1980s, Amtrak used to offer a great deal called the All Aboard America Pass. The contiguous United States was divided into three sections and you could by a pass through any one or all of them for $125.00 per section. There was a period in 1984 where I spent the better part of a month and a half riding just about every long distance train in the Amtrak system, as well as many shorter routes. It was all about travel and seeing America and I accomplished that and then some.

Over the years I reckon I bought at least a dozen All Aboard America passes, most of them in the western two thirds of the country. For the western zone, the easternmost town served on the Empire Builder route was Wolf Point, Montana. On those occasions where I had only a western zone pass, it made better sense to only go as far as Havre because the schedules were such that the eastbound Empire Builder arrived in Havre at about noon and the westbound train came through at about three. It was the perfect layover with plenty of time to head into town for lunch and even a visit to Havre’s famous underground mall.

As a thru-passenger today I had about twenty minutes to step off the train for a bit of fresh air. I took a stroll down to the far end of the station to check out the huge Baldwin S-2 Class “Northern” steam locomotive. It is a massive machine, weighing in at over 400,000 pounds. Combined with the oil tender attached behind, its overall length was about the same as a 737-200. It’s the last surviving unit of its type and though it’s looking pretty good I thought it could really use a new coat of paint.

The Baldwin S-2 Class “Northern” steam locomotive at Havre

The Baldwin S-2 Class “Northern” steam locomotive at Havre

Departing Havre we quickly accelerated to 79 mph as we sped westward across the broad expanse of Montana’s High Plains. Distant mountains rose to the south. Some antelope were spotted a couple hundred yards off the tracks. They looked up, registered the noise from the engines and quickly took off running – just in case our train should leap off the tracks and give pursuit.

Speeding across the High Plains of Montana

It was about 4:00pm when I decided to return to my roomette and stretch out for a bit. I’ve got a bad back and it’s not good to sit for too long. Just as many of you have enjoyed the luxury of deeper recline in a First or Business Class seat on a long intercontinental flight, Amtrak’s Superliner roomettes will quickly and easily convert to full flat mode. It’s so easy I did it all by myself without any assistance from Ray. Ah…

Stretching out across the High Plains of Montana

If there could be said to be a downside to riding westbound on the Empire Builder at this time of year, it would be that it’s nearly dark by the time the train reaches the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park outside of Browning, Montana. Although I’ve made this crossing many times during the longer days of June and July, I still look forward to revisiting the spectacular beauty of the park’s mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes. Alas, tonight it was not to be as darkness had set in by the time we’d rolled through Browning.

My dinner companions tonight were Kate and her 12 year old son Simon, my neighbors from downstairs in the roomette across the hall. Like me they had boarded in Chicago and were traveling all the way to Portland. Like me, they also lived in Alaska – albeit 600 miles to the south down in Homer. Even so, we just happened to know some of the same people – one of whom used to work in Denali Park with me and two others who own and operate the Homer Brewing Company. We ended up with a table to ourselves and needless to say the conversation percolated along quite nicely. It turns out young Simon was a stamp collector and - given my upcoming travels to South America and South Africa – I got his address and promised to send him a couple of postcards.

BEEF – It’s what’s for dinner when traveling through Montana

Later in the lounge I shared most of what was left of my bottle of Jack Daniels with Jim who worked as a carpenter in and around Kalispell, Montana. Where we connected was that back in the nineties Jim had worked three summers in Glacier National Park as a “Jammer” or driver of the old 1936 White touring cars that transport park visitors up Going to the Sun Road over Logan Pass. As some of you may know by now, I also drive visitors over mountain passes in a national park…

My Office in Denali National Park

Jim made an interesting point when he stated that only in Glacier National Park can you still take a passenger train that's run for over three quarters of a century directly to the park, board buses that have been around almost as long as the train, and then stay at hotels and lodges still in use and built by the railroad that helped create the park nearly a century ago. We had a good time talking about the West in general until Jim detrained at Whitefish, Montana. I hung out in the lounge car for another hour or so and then called it a night just as we were about to cross into Idaho.

I was asleep by the time we arrived in Spokane at 1:40am. The train spent about an hour there during which time the lounge and the three Portland bound cars were separated to continue southwest along the Columbia River on the former Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad. The rest of the train ahead of the lounge car would continue west through the Cascades Range and across Stevens Pass via the Cascade Tunnel to Seattle.

Despite the bumps and jolts attendant to separating the four Portland bound cars from the rest of the train, I never did wake up. By the time I finally did, the sun was just getting ready to rise over the broad expanse of the Columbia River as we sped west out of Wishram, Washington with Portland now less than three hours away.

Sunrise over the Columbia River

Early morning sunlight sparkles on the Columbia

Stretched out in my sleeper as we roll through the forest outside Vancouver, WA

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Portland Layover

Detraining at Portland, I took a moment to thank Ray for a job well done. It’s nice to see people who take joy in their work and by extension spread that joy to others. Smile and the world smiles with you. Ray epitomized this and though tipping is not required on Amtrak, I was happy to leave him with fifteen bucks. It’s interesting to note the number of people that don’t tip their servers and car attendants on Amtrak. It’s not required and while I’ve neither seen nor heard of any protocol regarding gratuities in this regard, the effort that Ray and many of his fellow employees have put into making my Amtrak experiences as nice as it can be certainly seems worthy of a little extra “thanks”.

I also bid farewell to Kate and Simon who would be spending a few days with friends in Portland before returning home to Alaska. Continuing on into the station, I picked up a copy of the Oregonian and then made my way over to the Metropolitan Lounge. This lounge is available to sleeper car passenger s only. It offers comfortable lounge seating, complimentary coffee and soft drinks, television and Wi-Fi. Most important to me, it also offered a place to store my roll-a-bord suitcase while I hoofed it across the street to the post office to mail some time sensitive documents related to my summer employment.

Later on I had lunch at Wilf’s Restaurant & Bar, an upscale eatery located on the south side of the station. I was joined by two friends who used to work in Denali National Park back in the eighties. We had fun reminiscing over the good old days while downing $7.00 pints and $14.00 hamburgers. Wilf’s ain’t cheap but the ambience is nice and the food and beer are good.

The interior of Wilf’s Restaurant & Bar at Portland Union Station

Later, we repaired to the Metropolitan Lounge where coffee and soft drinks sustained us while we awaited the delayed departure of Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight.

The interior of Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge at Portland Union Station

March 31, 2015
Amtrak Portland to Sacramento 335p – 645a +1 Coast Starlight First Class

It should be noted here that I was originally booked to ride the Coast Starlight from Portland all the way down to Los Angeles, there to connect to the eastbound Sunset Limited, departing Los Angeles at 10:00pm. Unfortunately, once Amtrak trains get delayed more than just a few minutes they then lose their slot to on-time freight trains. This means that on-time freights take precedence over delayed passenger trains, so on portions where there is just one track Amtrak’s delayed trains get shunted over to sidings to allow freights to come through. The result is that delayed trains often become even more delayed. In recognition of this I discovered that I’d been rerouted to Sacramento where I’d then catch a bus down to Stockton. From there I’d board Amtrak’s San Joaquin down to Bakersfield and then transfer to another bus that would deliver me straight to Los Angeles Union Station.

I can’t say as I was overly pleased about missing out on the beautiful scenery of central and coastal California, but at least I’d get into LA with plenty of time to spare and without worry of missing my onward connection aboard the Sunset Limited to New Orleans. That train operates only three days per week, so if I were to miss it the ramifications would be dire with regard to the rest of my trip.

Boarding commenced about twenty minutes prior to our re-scheduled 3:35pm departure. The delayed departure of the southbound Coast Starlight coincided with the on time arrival of the northbound Coast Starlight. The result was this nice bit of symmetry as both trains stood parked on parallel tracks in Portland’s Union Station…

North and Southbound Coast Starlights await departure at Portland Union Station

I noticed today that I was a good ten to twenty years younger than most of my fellow First Class passengers, many of whom grew up in an age when trains were still the best and most affordable means of getting around America. As they ambled their way down memory lane to their sleeper cars, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’ll still be doing Mileage Runs and trips like this when I’m seventy years old. I sure hope so.

Dan was my car attendant for this 640 mile run down to Sacramento. After directing me to my room, he was immediately hailed by an elderly couple who needed major assistance in getting up the stairway to their room on the upper level. Soon after that, he was explaining to another couple where the showers were and what time he’d be turning the beds down. I suspect Dan was going to be a very busy man on this trip.

For any of you more technically minded readers out there, today's Coast Starlight was led by two General Electric 4,250 HP Genesis Model P42DC locomotives. With each locomotive generating the power of 4,250 horses, we certainly weren’t short on power. The overall consist included a baggage car, a transition sleeper (For the crew and – if needed – any extra passengers), three Superliner II Sleeper Cars, the Pacific Parlour Car, a dining car, the Sightseer Lounge Car and three Superliner coaches.

Downstairs in room 11, I poured myself a bourbon and sat back to await the departure of our train. The scenery leaving Portland is not particularly outstanding, especially on a cloudy day. One highlight however comes almost immediately after departing Union Station as we cross the Willamette River over the old Steel Bridge. I had my camera out and ready.

Crossing the Willamette over the old Steel Bridge

An announcement was made that the dining car steward would soon be passing through the cars taking reservations for tonight’s dinner seatings. He’d be starting with the sleepers and moving backward to the coaches. A variety of times were available, ranging from 5:30 to 7:30pm. I stuck around until he arrived and then chose the 6:15pm seating.

Well alright then - Let’s head on up to the lounge for a spell!

Although all of Amtrak’s long distance trains provide a lounge car available to all passengers, only the Coast Starlight offers an additional lounge car called the Pacific Parlour Car. For some odd reason, Amtrak has chosen to use the British spelling of “parlour” rather than parlor. In keeping with the British affinity for class distinction, this car is available exclusively to First Class passengers only.

There are five Pacific Parlour Cars currently in operation. All of them were originally built back in the 1950s for the Santa Fe's El Capitan, an all-Coach streamliner that offered budget minded passengers traveling between Chicago and Los Angeles an inexpensive alternative to the all-Pullman Super Chief. I remember riding on these cars back in the early days of Amtrak during the 70s and 80s when they served as lounges on the Southwest Limited and the Sunset Limited. They still had their original Santa Fe interiors back then, complete with the original Southwest tones of turquoise, beige and rust accented with Navajo prints. Downstairs in what is now a movie theater was the Kachina Coffee Shop.

By the late 1980s these cars were showing their age. I remember one particularly unpleasant experience aboard the Sunset Limited when the air-conditioning went out in the lounge as we rolled westward through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona on a particularly hot September afternoon. Surrounded by glass windows above and around us, it wasn’t long before the temperature inside the lounge soared into the 90°s – or higher. We were all forced to beat a hasty retreat back to the coaches until well after sunset.

In any event, as more Superliner equipment came online these old lounge cars were eventually retired to a siding in the LA railyards where they spent the next few years in a sorry state of neglect. I remember seeing them out there with broken windows after kids had used them for years of target practice. It was a sad sight for those of us familiar with their heritage.

In the mid-1990s, Amtrak decided to spruce up the Coast Starlight, which was at that time its most profitable train. The plan was to offer superior service, classier dining and a special lounge reserved exclusively for First Class passengers. Amtrak remodeled and refurbished six of the old Santa Fe cars at a cost of 2 million dollars each. The result is, in my opinion, one of the finest cars ever to grace contemporary American rails.

There are several types of seating available in the Pacific Parlour Car. At one end are eight large over-stuffed swivel chairs. In the middle of the car is a buffet area, used for the morning breakfast offerings and the afternoon wine tastings. Opposite it, a stairway leads down to an 18-seat movie theater. Just beyond the buffet area are two long rounded couches, intimately arranged around small tables suitable for drinks, very much like the seating you would find in a cocktail lounge. Finally, there are six booths with tables – three on each side. At the far end of the lounge is an attractive wooden bar and service area.

Pacific Parlour Car Swivel Loungers

Pacific Parlour Car Cocktail Lounge Seating

Pacific Parlour Car Buffet Tables

Pacific Parlour Car Front to Back

Entering the Parlour Car from the swivel lounger side, I encountered four of my fellow passengers comfortably enjoying the view…

Howdy! Mind if I join you?

Introductions were exchanged revealing that I’d joined John and Julie from Antioch, CA; Bob from somewhere in Tennessee and Justine from Melbourne, Australia. John and Julie were returning from a family visit in Vancouver, Washington – just across the Columbia River from Portland. This was their first time ever traveling by train – except for Cal Train, John quickly added – and they were really surprised at how nice it was, especially the Pacific Parlour Car. They knew they’d be getting a room but beyond that had no idea there was a lounge car like this on board. It was fun to share in their excitement.

When the question came up as to which river we were rolling along, I said it was the Willamette. Justine interjected to say that it was pronounced “Will-ah-mette”. Perhaps so if we were in Australia, I said, but here in Oregon it’s pronounced “Will-a-mette” with a short “a”. Justine held her ground however and insisted it was “Will-ah-mette”.

This was Justine throughout the afternoon – headstrong, opinionated, she reminded me of the matriarch on Downton Abbey. She had an opinion about everything, and often a not very positive one at that. She seemed to take particular glee in comparing America with Australia to the detriment of America in every instance. It became clear early on that countering her commentary with objective, rational responses mattered not a whit to her, so we politely minimized interaction with her as the afternoon went on.

Bob was an interesting guy, dressed very comfortably in jeans and an old plaid shirt while sporting a well-worn Tennessee Vols baseball cap. He spoke with a pretty strong Tennessee brogue in contrast to Justine’s cultured Australian accent. (That’s right – not all Aussies speak like Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee…the Australian accent can be very nice sounding) He was quite knowledgeable about trains, too. He wasn’t a “foamer” per se, but he had some interesting stories and facts to relate. I enjoyed listening to his stories.

I think that most everyone who chooses to ride a train in this age of exceedingly affordable air travel is a railfan to some extent. Consider that on many longer routes it’s more expensive to take the train than to fly, especially when you add in the cost of meals. Many rail passengers are willing to pay a bit more if only because they enjoy the leisurely pace of train travel. Others are full blown railroading fanatics (otherwise known as “foamers” because they practically foam at the mouth in their exuberance for all things about railroading) who can quote chapter and verse the pre-Amtrak history of Southern Pacific’s Daylight and Starlight trains through California or the gear ratios on GE’s new Genesis Class locomotives. I’m definitely a railfan but outside of having ridden every Amtrak route in America over 200 miles in length, I can’t keep up with most of the history and technical buffs. The one thing we all share in common is the pure enjoyment of traveling somewhere on a train and since that’s exactly what we were all doing at the moment, we were all having a great time.

At one point Dan the car attendant came up and joined us for a while. He gave Justine a hard time about taking bottled water from the coach cars. He wasn’t totally serious by any means but of course she thought he was, so that was fun to watch.

A very friendly guy named Mitch manned the bar. I purchased a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and returned to listen as John and Bob compared the respective strengths of the Giants and the Braves. It was about this time that Justine took leave of us, organized sports perhaps being beneath her presumed intellect. Remarkably, I didn’t see her again for the remainder of the trip.

I was enjoying another steak dinner as we accelerated out of Eugene, Oregon. From here the Coast Starlight climbs 4000 feet up to Cascade Summit. Without question, this is one of the most scenic parts of the trip as the train climbs through 22 tunnels and two long hairpin turns. Unfortunately low clouds and rain accompanied us as we left Eugene and by the time we got up near the summit it was dark. The best time to enjoy this portion of the southbound trip is during the summer months. Northbound trains traverse this section entirely during daylight hours year round.

Springtime in the Cascades

After dinner I made my way back to the Pacific Parlour Car but except for Mitch and I it was deserted. I bought another beer and enjoyed a bit of banter with Mitch about everything from Amtrak to Angostura Bitters. It was about 9:30pm when I called it a night and headed back to my roomette. My bed hadn’t been made up yet but Dan was only a push button away and in short order had the room ready for night time occupancy. It was interesting to watch.

First, he lowered each seat in my roomette to its flat position. When flat, both seats meet in the middle to create a 6’ 6” flat bed. He then lowered the upper bunk and retrieved a full length mattress (about 2 1/2 “ thick) already made up with sheets and a blanket. All he had to do was lift it down from above, place it atop my bed and smooth it out. A couple of pillows completed the ensemble and voila! Your bed is ready! All I had to do was hang up my clothing and call it a night.

Amtrak’s Superliner Roomette – Nighttime Configuration

From my perspective, one of life’s great travel experiences is having the luxury of your own private sleeper aboard a train speeding through the night. It has been my good fortune to have done so while travelling aboard trains through every continent except Antarctica. I generally sleep pretty well on trains as the overall motion of the train is quite relaxing. Add to that the clickety-clack of the rails speeding underneath and the occasional muted whistle from the locomotive and sleep comes quite easily.

I should note however that I’m not overly fond of the tight sheet and blanket arrangement on Amtrak’s mattresses. I much prefer the sheets and large, fluffy duvet proffered by Canada’s ViaRail. As such,, I bring my own wool blanket along – the same one I use when sleeping in airports – and just snuggle under it while lying atop the mattress. Works great for me!


Unfortunately we made up a bit of time overnight and so it was 5:45am when Dan’s knock on my door announced that we were a half hour out from Sacramento. I like being up in the early morning but I hate getting up early in the morning. I’d managed about six and a half hours of sleep – not bad, but I could have easily logged a couple more – so I was especially thankful when Dan offered to bring me a cup of coffee. What is this – Singapore Airlines?! Nice job, Danny Boy!

Detraining at Sacramento in the early morning dew, I left Dan a nice tip and made my way down the long walkway into the big Sacramento Valley Station building. It’s in the process of being refurbished at present and so offers passengers little more than scaffolding, plastic and hard backed railroad pews. A couple of vending machines offer dubious sustenance at inflated prices. For the adventurous, there’s a Starbuck’s a block and a half away.

* * * _ * _ * * *

Okay, so today I’ve got to ride a bus to Stockton, a train down the San Joaquin Valley to Bakersfield and then another bus down to Los Angeles Union Station.

At this point in our journey do you really want to read about all that?

I think by now you all get the gist of what it’s like to travel by train – and that for me at least train travel is an experience every bit as social as it is scenic. This is an eleven day train trip however and while I like to ride trains with as much fervor as some dogs like to chase sticks, there’s a big difference between actually doing it versus reading about it. I fear I run the risk of becoming a bit superfluous describing yet another day on the rails, another nice meal, another interesting group of passengers and yet another scenic vista… Yeah, yeah, we got it already!

Not wanting to hoist my own petard through – of all things - redundancy, I propose that we temporarily go into more of a photo report mode with an occasional paragraph or three as needed should I deem anything interesting enough to be worthy of comment. Examples of this might be historical, behavioral or service oriented in nature. Knowing me, I’ll probably find a way to squeeze another 2 or 3000 words or so out of all this before detraining in Seattle a week from today. That’ll be better than another 6000 words however, the difference of which could be much better employed to describe my week in California, flying First Class down to Santiago, or continuing on to South Africa via Colombia, Panama and Brazil in some rather nice Business Classes…

Here’s a shot of the Stockton Station, built in the popular adobe style commonly seen along the Santa Fe’s San Joaquin route.

Stockton Station

Following a four hour train ride down to Bakersfield, Los Angeles bound passengers transferred to an Amtrak bus direct to Union Station. My lasting impression from this portion of the trip came as we drove through Castaic Junction, where the old back road from Santa Paula meets Interstate 5. I remember stopping out there for breakfast early one morning back in 1974. We ate at a coffee shop called Henry’s that was notable for the fact that aside from a gas station, it was about the only other business out there at Castaic Junction. I liked it – a little oasis in the middle of nowhere.

Alas, not so anymore. Today Castaic Junction is wall to wall warehouses, outlet malls, hotels and shopping centers. Oh yes, there’s also the Six Flags over Magic Mountain amusement park. The old back road from Santa Paula has become a four to six lane highway. Forty years of progress, I guess. I didn’t like it.

We pulled into Los Angeles Union Station at about 5:30pm. I stored my bags in the Metropolitan Lounge and then headed up the street for a bite to eat. On my way out I paused a moment to admire the main hall. The leather-upholstered wooden chairs in the main hall look to be original issue, so I sat down a moment and took it all in.

Built in 1939 in the Mission Revival style, the Los Angeles Union Station is not a large building on the scale of New York’s Grand Central or Chicago’s Union Station, but its art deco interior flourishes, high wooden-beam ceilings and red-tiled floors inset with colorful mosaics make it as inviting and aesthetically pleasing a station as I’ve ever been to.

The Main Hall at Los Angeles Union Station

Returning to the station about 8, I spent a pleasant hour and a half in the recently remodeled Metropolitan Lounge until the call came to board the Sunset Limited at about 9:30pm.

April 01, 2015
Amtrak Los Angeles to New Orleans 1000p – 940p +1 Sunset Limited First Class

Although Amtrak offers complimentary golf cart transfers to those who “may need a little extra assistance” in getting to the train, I elected to head downstairs, walk down the subterranean concourse and then up the tunnel to the train. Truth be known, with my arthritic back and pronounced limp I wouldn’t have minded taking a ride out to the train on that golf cart but when about forty elderly people stood up to heed the call I just couldn’t be bothered to wait in line. As it is I still live in a dry cabin in Alaska and amongst other chores have to haul in 40 pound 5 gallon containers of water every four or five days. I reckon I can still handle the long walk out to the train.

The ramp to the train at Los Angeles Union Station

Sunset Limited poster in the entryway

I was greeted by my car attendant Yvonne – a seasoned old veteran who was not overly gregarious but was otherwise okay with regard to performing her duties throughout the two day ride to New Orleans. My roomette was ready and waiting for me with all the usual amenities. Yvonne said to just let her know when I was ready for bed and she’d take care of me. Right on, Yvonne! If you would please, go ahead and setup my bed now. Ah ‘mon pop on up to the lounge car for a quick visit!

Okay, okay, so I promised you less commentary and more pictures but I can’t resist. Bear with me for a little history if you will …

The \Sunset Limited is the oldest named train in the United States, operating since November 1894 (though it was originally named the Sunset Express). The name Sunset Limited traces its origins to the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, which was known as the Sunset Route as early as 1874.

Once upon a time the Sunset Limited was Southern Pacific's premier train, initially operating an all-Pullman consist (All sleeping cars, no coaches) between New Orleans and San Francisco via Los Angeles. These days the Sunset Limited offers both Coach and First Class, operating over tracks jointly owned by the BNSF Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad.

The route of the Sunset Limited

True to its name, the train does occasionally offer some pretty nice sunsets while speeding westbound across the Sonoran Desert. Here’s a pretty shot I took a few years ago…

Sunset on the Sunset Limited

The late departure time of this train (10:00pm) combined with a fairly light load out of LA this evening translated to a totally deserted lounge car. I discretely poured myself a bourbon and spent the next forty minutes or so watching as we rolled through the suburbs of greater Los Angeles. Aside from the lounge car attendant downstairs, I was the only one seated upstairs.

The next morning I awoke to bright sunshine flooding the vast sandy expanse of the Sonoran Desert. Also known to some as the Painted Desert, the Sonoran is the classic southwestern desert most people associate with saguaro cactus, gila monsters, coyotes and the like. Truth be known, it is home to a surprisingly diverse collection of plants and animals and is generally regarded as the prettiest of the four major American deserts. Unfortunately the prettiest parts of the Sonoran are crossed at night, but I still enjoyed the contrast of big blue sky against sandy yellows and browns as we sped eastward at 79 mph.

Eastbound and Down – Speeding across the desert sands

Lunchtime on the Sunset Limited

As we continued on into New Mexico and Texas we transitioned into the Chihuahua Desert. When we pulled into El Paso at 3:30pm the temperature outside was a pleasant 84°F. Inside the train it was an even more pleasant 70° or so.

Looking over the border fence into Mexico

Train time at El Paso’s distinctive red brick station

A double stacked container train makes its way through downtown El Paso

The hills of West Texas

One of many shallow canyons we traveled through

Passenger resting comfortably at a table in the lounge car

The next morning found us in San Antonio, Texas. It takes a full twenty-one hours to cross the breadth of Texas and in the process we transitioned from the arid desert of West Texas to the lush green wetlands of East Texas. Soon afterwards, we crossed the Sabine River into Louisiana and began to traverse thick cypress swamps. This was bayou country and later this afternoon a special treat would await me during our brief station stop at Lafayette.

Three or four years ago I started a thread over in the Travel Buzz forum titled “Old Timer’s Airline Quiz and Discussion”. I posted a set of seventy questions related to airline operations back in the 1960s and 70s. As an example of some of the questions asked :

1. What airline flew The Great Silver Fleet?
2. Name six US airlines that flew the Boeing 720
3. Which airline was the launch customer for the 727?
4. What airline’s jets were called “Pacemakers”?
5. Name seven US airlines that flew the British built BAC-111

I honestly didn’t expect this thread to last more than a few days and was quite surprised that a handful of people actually knew all or most of the answers. A few more questions were posted and over time this thread began to take on a life of its own. Today it has over 437063 hits and 8041posts.

A major contributor to the success of this thread has been Flyertalker jlemon. Without his considerable contribution with hundreds of questions along with his always positive bon homie, the “Old Timer’s Airline Quiz and Discussion” would likely have dissolved years ago as I would have gladly run off most of the participants for transgressions such as answering more than three questions at a time (On the rudeness scale right up there with taking too much food off the platter at Thanksgiving and thus not leaving enough for everyone else to equally enjoy).

In any event, when jlemon heard I would be rolling through his hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana on the Sunset Limited, he promised to come down to the station and deliver unto me one of his favorite concoctions – a Cajun Bloody Mary. And so it was that during our five minute stop in Lafayette I met jlemon, his good friend Kate and their little dog Bella and was handed a large plastic thermal cup filled with a delicious ice cold Cajun Bloody Mary. Even car attendant Yvonne was impressed, though rules forbid her from sampling a proffered sip of the tasty cocktail. Thank you, JL, for making my quick visit through Louisiana so tasty and memorable. ^

The sun sat low in the sky as we rolled out of Lafayette through the farm country of south central Louisiana. At sunset an interesting cloud formation cast a giant “Z” across the face of the setting sun. I had my camera ready.

Late afternoon rolling through Louisiana

Black and Gold – the colors of the Saints

The mark of Zorro across the setting sun

A highlight of coming into New Orleans aboard the Sunset Limited is the crossing of the Huey P. Long Bridge. Located just west of New Orleans and spanning almost 4.5 miles in length, the bridge is one of the longest railroad bridges in the United States. It takes the train 135 feet above the Mississippi River. Although it was dark when we crossed, lights on the bridge and in the area still allowed me to get a good sense of the length and height of this bridge.

It was almost 10:00pm when we eased into New Orleans. We were running about twenty minutes late, the first time we’d run late at any time on this trip. That’s notable because many people have this perception that Amtrak trains often run late. Certain trains have and some trains still do but overall I believe the majority of Amtrak’s operations still run within 30 minutes of schedule.

Once again it seems that, like last year I have arrived in New Orleans on the eve of the Crescent City Classic, a 10K foot race that attracts runners from all over the country. As such, all of the affordable accommodations have long since been reserved. The traditional ones, that is. I’m a guy who is still willing to consider hostels however and so it is that I’m booked into a nice old place called Site 61. Located just an $8.00 cab ride from the train station, the recently remodeled house provided me with a comfortable bunk bed in a quiet room that I shared with two other people.

In the morning I walked a couple of blocks over to a small café where that old New Orleans staple of coffee and beignets got my day off to a tasty start. I had the luxury of taking a leisurely morning as my next train, the City of New Orleans, wasn’t due to depart New Orleans until 2:25pm.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Dec 29, 15 at 4:20 am
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Old Dec 26, 15, 3:10 am
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April 04, 2015
Amtrak New Orleans to Chicago 145p – 900a +1 City of New Orleans First Class

It was approaching 1:45pm when the cab dropped me off at New Orleans’ Union Passenger Terminal. Unlike some old stations serving America’s larger cities, this one would hardly be considered architecturally appealing. I was reminded of the station in Cape Town, South Africa. When they built this station the emphasis was clearly on functionality. The New Orleans station is clearly that, serving both Amtrak and Greyhound. Inside there is a gift shop and a food court featuring a Subway sandwich concession. A few electronic games like Pac Man sit off to one side of the food court.
Two uniformed NOPD officers kept a watchful eye at both entrances to the station, probably a good idea given the seediness of the area and the behavioral shortcomings occasionally exhibited amongst those who ride Greyhound.

Surprisingly, the station also offers a lounge for Amtrak’s First Class passengers. It’s called the Magnolia Room and though the name might suggest Southern comfort and gracious hospitality, the reality of it is a medium sized room sporting a couple dozen lounge chairs, a TV, a small coffee maker and a water dispenser. There are no snacks provided, no computers and no restrooms. In short, the only real benefit to this “lounge” is that it’s quieter and the cushioned chairs are more comfortable than sitting on the hard plastic seats out in the main lobby.

The Magnolia Room

Boarding was announced at 1:25pm. As we walked out the train I took note of a beautiful private car on the adjoining track. It was painted in the attractive brown and orange livery of the Illinois Central’s crack streamliner, the Panama Limited. I later found out that this car is used for luxury rail trips between New Orleans, Chicago and Denver.

Onboard my car, I reveled in the air-conditioned ecstasy of my roomette as I settled in for the 19 hour ride up to Chicago. My neighbors arrived, a retired couple from Naperville, Illinois on their way home after a week-long Caribbean cruise. Car attendant Janelle stopped by check on us and answer any questions we might have about the roomettes. As it turned out we were all veteran riders and so she bid us a pleasant journey and told us to call her if we needed anything.

Ah… my air-conditioned roomette

Lower level handicapped room
There’s roomette style seating and beds behind me

We departed New Orleans right on time at1:45 p.m. I watched from my downstairs room as we glided away from the downtown area and on through the “backside” of New Orleans. Once again I was reminded of Cape Town but this time of its shantytowns. Here in one of New Orleans’ less prosperous wards I watched as we rolled by row upon row of ramshackle houses situated alongside the tracks. An old man looked up from a nap outside his backdoor. Two boys waved excitedly at the train. I waved back.

A few minutes later we were rumbling over a long causeway through the swamps west of Lake Pontchartrain. Cypress trees with hanging moss grew out of swamps, and pelicans were visible in the distance. Egrets are also commonly seen through here, I looked for but did not see any alligators. There’s a turtle!

Rolling along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain

Bayou Country

North of Lake Pontchartrain we quickly transitioned from lush green wetlands to longleaf pine forests and farmland. Tiny settlements and small towns flashed by as we sped north, horn blowing vigorously at each road crossing. In some towns with multiple road crossings, the horn remained constant. I once read that a higher percentage of cars are hit by trains in Southern states than anywhere else in the nation, so perhaps this has something to do with the horn usage.

Rippin’ through the forests

Rural Views in Southern Louisiana

Church and Doublewide Trackside

At Hammond I headed up to the Sightseer Lounge, located just two cars back. A cold beer and a panoramic view out the big picture windows made for an enjoyable ride up to Jackson.

Sightseer Lounge Car

Trackside at Jackson, Mississippi

The call went out for my 6:00pm dinner reservation shortly after we’d departed Jackson. At my table this evening was a typical mixed bag of riders. To my right was Dennis, a retired teacher from Milwaukee who also happened to be an Illinois Central Railroad buff. Across from us was a middle-aged couple from Kingman, Arizona whose names I don’t recall. They were a lively pair though and between us all we had a good time talking about everything from driving in Mexico to the Green Bay Packer’s Super Bowl chances to Alaskan winters and more.

Although I usually order the steak for dinner, tonight I decided to change things up a bit and order the half chicken dinner. I accompanied that with a side salad and a can of Ginger Ale, something I hadn’t enjoyed for a good year or more. That soda sure tasted good though and as for the chicken, it was top notch!

City of New Orleans Menu

Amtrak Dinner Salad

Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner!

Cocktail hour scenery through Mississippi

After dinner, Denny and I repaired to the lounge for a couple drinks and some railroad talk. Since I neglected to hit up a liquor store prior to my departure this afternoon, I ended up shelling out $7.00 a shot for airline mini-style bottles of Jack Daniels. Times four. Sheeesh, for the price I paid I could’ve had a big 750ml bottle with plenty of change and only drunk about a third of it. Well let that be a lesson to me for my lack of foresight. Out the big picture windows we were treated to a pretty sunset though, and on the whole it was another nice night of train riding in America.

Sunset on the City of New Orleans

Later Sunset on the City of New Orleans

The next morning I barely made last call for breakfast and so had a table all to myself. No complaints there, really. Obviously I enjoy the social side of travel but in many other situations – be they at home or on the road - I often eat out on my own. Breakfast especially is my favorite meal for a little solitude as it’s usually the best chance I get all day to catch up on the news. In this case it was yesterday’s Times – Picayune.

As we sped through the Chicago suburbs racing morning commuters on a parallel highway, I opened the Sports section, had another sip of coffee and said a silent prayer of thanks that I was not part of the freeway madness already in full swing.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Dec 29, 15 at 12:12 am
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Old Dec 26, 15, 3:11 am
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This was a day it would’ve been nice to be delayed. Here I was saddled with a six hour layover and I had nobody to meet in Chicago and nothing in particular planned.

One nice thing about Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge is that they’ll store your baggage at no cost. They’ve also got coffee and pastries available in the morning. I headed over there directly and spent a couple hours on some aimless internet surfing before heading out and upstairs to street level where I caught a bus over to Harry Carry’s restaurant on W. Kinzie Street.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine and I had stumbled upon this restaurant after discovering that the price of a hamburger at the nearby House of Blues was a quite a bit more than we deemed reasonable for a third pound of beef, a slice of cheese, a few vegetables and some fried potatoes.

For those of you unfamiliar with Harry Caray, he’s a Chicago sports casting legend that was the voice of the Chicago White Sox from 1971 to 1981 and the Chicago Cubs from 1982 to 1997. Harry brought passion and charisma to his broadcasts and I’m sure to most of his other pursuits as well. Though Harry is no longer with us, his spirit lives on through the three restaurants that bear his name.

Bronze Bust of Harry Carry in his restaurant

One of Harry’s signature phrases – often exclaimed after particularly impressive home runs – was “Holy Cow!” as in “"It might be ... it could be ... it IS! A home run! Holy cow!". In Harry’s baritone it came out more like “Hoooo-lee Cowww!!!” On the menu at Harry’s is a 10oz hamburger brimming with onions and mushrooms and other good things. I can just hear Harry now being presented with this impressive burger and saying “Holy Cow!”. Of course, the name of the burger is the “Holy Cow!” Burger. I’ll have that please. Medium rare. With fries. And a pint of Goose Island Ale, please.

On my way back to the station I stopped off at a CVS Pharmacy, conveniently located just one block from Union Station. More than a mere drug store, CVS also stock an impressive array of snacks and a basic selection of spirits. For me, that translated into a purchase of four sleeves of Smokehouse Almonds and one bottle of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.

Now suitably outfitted for the journey ahead, I returned to Union Station to await the departure of train 3, the westbound Southwest Chief.

April 05, 2015
Amtrak Chicago to Los Angeles 300p – 815a +2 Southwest Chief First Class

Waiting at the door of sleeper #330 was Darrell, a big, happy gregarious man who made me and all my fellow passengers feel right at home from the moment we arrived. In making his rounds after we’d boarded, we quickly established that I was a veteran rider and so the conversation turned to other things. Darrell noticed my Denver Broncos t-shirt that I’d brought along to sleep in. It turns out he was a Raiders fan and some light hearted razzing ensued that ended abruptly when I asked “How do you keep the Oakland Raiders away from your house?” Why, put a goal post in your yard, of course! Truth be known, Darrell had to attend to a couple in the handicapped room but I saw him often during the two day ride west and always enjoyed his bon homie.

Pulling out of Chicago with a punctuality that would have made the Swiss proud, we soon left the Chicago suburbs behind and sped out into the rolling farmland of rural Illinois.

Illinois farm country
Still a bit bleak until spring arrives

At dinner I was seated across from two young guys from England who’d flown in the day before from Manchester and were just starting a two-week trip around the western U.S. Neither of them had ever been to the U.S. and the only plans they’d made for this trip was to spend a couple of days in LA before renting a car and heading up the coast to San Francisco and then down to Las Vegas.
This LA  San Francisco  Las Vegas triangle has to be amongst the most popular ever for visitors to the American west. It’s not a bad circuit in and of itself but in many instances the people I’ve met who are doing it are planning to drive mostly on the interstate highways with the exception of course being California’s famous highway 1 along the beautiful Pacific coast. These boys were no different.

As one who was born and raised in the American west and loves its varied landscapes more than anywhere else in the world, I can’t help but cringe a bit when I hear of people of any stripe planning to drive the interstates. Now I understand that sometimes time is more important than sightseeing, and in those instances people are generally well served by using the big roads. That said however, if you’re over here on holiday and your primary intent is to see this big, broad beautiful land we Americans call home, I totally encourage you to get yourself a good road atlas, fire up your sense of adventure and strike out on the blue highways. You’ll be rewarded with views and experiences far more rewarding than those so often missed while putting your brain in neutral and speeding down the big broad expanse of concrete that is your typical interstate highway.

If I could endorse any two books that best describe the benefits of driving the secondary roads through America, I would recommend:

<b>Blue Highways</b> Blue Highways
by William Least Heat Moon


<b>The Lost Continent</b> The Lost Continent
by Bill Bryson

The American west covers a huge area and its vastness may very well be a bit intimidating to those from smaller countries. Nevada alone must seem huge compared to most European countries. The most common concerns about secondary roads that I hear range from road quality to criminal activity to getting lost. In that light, I can certainly appreciate how the interstates must look safer and more attractive to first time visitors.

Mind you I’m never one to lambaste anyone – particularly those from beyond our borders – about their choice of routes. Rather, I simply mention a few of the benefits of some alternate routes suitable to their itinerary and offer my services toward route recommendations should they so desire. After all, when it comes to driving around the west, my credentials are impeccable.

This is a map of everywhere I’ve driven only in my old 1988 Mazda truck
This photo was taken in 1997. I drove that truck until 2006 over many more roads
that aren’t represented in this photo

The way I see it, if you can make your way from the car rental facility out to California Highway 1, drive it and then navigate your way on to the appropriate interstate and eventually back to the car rental facility, you can just as easily find your way onto and off of highway 33 or Route 66 or State Road S22.

I’ve got a road trip coming up myself in just a few days and so I just happened to have a small road atlas with me. Additionally, in my laptop - which accompanies me everywhere - I also have thousands of pictures from my travels around the country over the years. I can not only show you some great roads, I can also show you some great pictures from driving them.

Why take I-70 across Utah when you can take Utah Highway 95 through Frye Canyon

And then connect to

Utah Highway 12 down through the Escalante

If they were at all interested I said I’d be happy to provide them with some interesting options after dinner in the lounge. As it turned out however, they weren’t at all interested and so we spent the remainder of dinner discussing British dental plans and Welsh politics.

Just kidding!

Honestly, with my enthusiasm for the subject it would be very easy for some people – out of sheer politeness – to say yes when they’d really rather do something else, so I’m always careful to acknowledge that there may be other things they’d rather do on the train and what the heck – even if they do take the interstate, it’s all new territory for them and they’ll still have a good time. These guys were genuinely interested though, as was tablemate Jim who’d joined us shortly after we’d been seated.

As for dinner, I returned to the old tried and true – Amtrak’s Flatiron Steak accompanied by a side salad and a baked potato. I should note here that I like my steak medium rare and so I’d like to give a shout out to Amtrak’s chefs everywhere who have unerringly cooked all of the steaks I’ve ordered of late perfectly medium rare. Well done, gang!

Rolling along the broad Mississippi at sunset

Dinner on the Southwest Chief

A tasty start to the meal

Amtrak’s Flatiron Steak

The next day I awoke to a beautiful spring morning as we sped west through southwestern Kansas. I am always surprised at the number of people I meet who write off Kansas as flat and boring. It’s quite a large state and yes, parts of it – particularly along the Interstate 70 corridor through west central Kansas – are not visually stimulating. However, down in southwestern Kansas along the Arkansas River and amidst the Flint Hills, it’s quite a different story. Should you ever be driving through here, I’d recommend US Highway 50 or 160.

Breakfast in the diner was my usual veggie omelette with chicken sausage accompanied by a rather deflated looking croissant. I think I’ll stick to the biscuit next time. Surprisingly I got a table to myself which allowed me to spread out with a copy of yesterday’s Chicago Tribune.

Breakfast on the rails

It was about 8:00am when we crossed into Colorado. Even though I’ve lived in Alaska for thirty years, as a Colorado native it always feels good to be “back home”. Some say that St. Louis is the “Gateway to The West” but I’ve never felt you’re truly in the west until you’re at least as far as Montana, Wyoming, Colorado or New Mexico.

Our first view of the Rocky Mountains came about thirty minutes later. I think mountains symbolize the west more than any other single feature. Seated in the lounge car I could sense the excitement amongst my fellow passengers. Now this is what it’s all about! I thought briefly of my dinner companions from last night and hoped they were up to enjoy the view.

First view of the Rocky Mountains from the Southwest Chief

Westward Ho!

Our route continued through the plains and buttes of southeastern Colorado before turning south at Trinidad and heading down into New Mexico. Here the land became much more arid as we climbed up into the high chaparral along Raton Pass.

Welcome to New Mexico!

Climbing Raton Pass

On our way down from the summit we met up with the northbound “Chief”.

Meeting of the Chiefs

We were about thirty minutes late when we pulled into Albuquerque. It was a pleasant afternoon and many passengers took advantage of our extended stop to step off the train, take a walk up and down the platform and do a bit of business with the Navajo vendors selling jewelry and blankets trackside.

Trackside at Albuquerque, New Mexico

Upon departure from Albuquerque our pace increased substantially. The Santa Fe was one of the first railroads (if not the first) to lay electrically welded rail and so our tracks not only allowed for faster speed but also provided a wonderfully smooth ride. The speed limit through western New Mexico and eastern Arizona is 90mph, which seemed to me the perfect speed as we rolled through the colorful buttes and painted desert surrounding us.

Our stop in Gallup, New Mexico brought back old memories. Back in the 1970s I went to school at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. I had friends attending Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona and on the occasional long weekend I’d hitchhike the 160 miles from Durango down to Gallup to catch the 7:30pm departure of the westbound Southwest Limited. I always used to leave Durango about 3:00pm and despite the 160 mile route to Gallup usually requiring three or four rides, I always made it to Gallup on time.

Back in those days Amtrak had only been around a few years and so was still operating the original equipment from Santa Fe’s famous Super Chief and El Capitan. The bi-level Superliner equipment we see today on Amtrak’s long distance trains was still a few years away. For a young traveler like myself, the three hour ride to Flagstaff was not only affordable ($10.00) but also a lot of fun. I’d start with dinner in the diner ($4.00 would get you soup, salad and a dinner entrée) before discreetly sneaking back into the First Class cars where I’d grab a seat upstairs in Santa Fe’s luxurious Pleasure Dome.

Unlike most dome cars of its era which sported 24 non-reclining chairs arranged in six rows of 2-2, Santa Fe’s Pleasure Domes featured 8 wide, well cushioned lounge chairs that would swivel 180°. Comfortably reclined under the dome in one of those plush loungers while speeding across the desert on a clear starry night remains one of my favorite all-time experiences aboard a train.

Tonight I was sat at a table in Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge car enjoying the bottom half of my bottle of Jack Daniels with Don, a heavy equipment mechanic and Dodgers fan from Pomona, California. With baseball season starting this week, Don was proudly attired in his Dodgers cap and jersey. I’m conversant in sports but I’ve never felt strongly enough about any team – even my beloved Denver Broncos – to wear jerseys and hats on any day other than game day. I enjoyed talking with Don though – he was not only a Dodger fan but also a baseball fan with a good memory for historic detail. As it turned out, we both shared the same favorite all-time home run.

It was back in 1988, first game of the world series between Don’s Dodgers and my A’s. It was the bottom of the ninth with the A’s leading 4-3 and the Dodgers down to their last out. With one man on base, an injured Kirk Gibson hobbles up to the plate as a pinch hitter against the A’s Dennis Eckersley, the best reliever in baseball that season. Gibson went on to hit a dramatic two run walk off homer that I think changed the momentum of the series. It was Gibson’s only at bat in the series but boy did he sure make the most of it. Even as an A’s fan, my hat’s off to Gibson. Great hit!

Later we were joined by Richard, a cook who was currently unemployed. He’d been visiting friends in Albuquerque courtesy of an Amtrak fare sale that allowed him to travel roundtrip from Flagstaff to Albuquerque for just $64.00. I added to his discounts by pouring him a glass of Jack and we had fun discussing everything from baseball to Arizona history to life in Alaska.

Richard left us in Flagstaff and - with the Jack Daniels bottle now empty - I bid goodnight to Don and retired for the night shortly after we’d departed Flagstaff. We were still running about a half hour off schedule but my car attendant Darrell – a long time veteran of the Southwest Chief – informed me that there was a considerable fudge factor built into the schedule between Needles and Los Angeles. From his experience our thirty minute delay was nothing to worry about. Comfortably reassured, I read for a half hour or so and then slept all the way to San Bernardino.

In the morning I packed up and then headed up to the lounge car to meet our train’s conductor. He was a friend of a friend and had been given a heads up that I’d be onboard this train. There wasn’t much time left before our on-time arrival into Los Angeles Union Station – the lounge car staff was closing down the lounge and ordered everyone back to their seats – and so we agreed to meet again in the Main Hall at 8:30.

I received another surprise when I was met trackside by an old friend from Denali. It’s been twenty years since he worked with us in the park and – like many who’ve moved on from their park jobs – he’s doing quite well in his new career as an independent film maker in LA. We headed down to the Main Hall where a Starbucks kiosk provided hot coffee and pastries while we hashed over our lives and times of late. Conductor Dave arrived and the conversation turned to trains and my trip reports which is how Dave first became aware of me. My friend Bryant in Atlanta, himself a widely traveled rail fan as well as a contributing Flyertalker, had introduced Dave to my trip reports, many of which involve rail travel. You’ll find more of them right HERE.

Dave had to leave us at 9 so Fred and I hung out for another half hour until when boarding was announced at 9:40am. Red cap service with a golf cart is available but I’m just not quite ready to give it up for the ease of the cart when there’s still plenty of time to walk out to the train. Off we went to track 10.
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Old Dec 26, 15, 3:12 am
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Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
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Posts: 9,670
April 07, 2015
Amtrak Los Angeles to Seattle 1010a – 837p +1 Coast Starlight First Class

Oh my God! What are the odds?! Waiting at the door to my car was my old buddy Jay Etz. Jay’s been a car attendant with Amtrak for over twenty years and this is the second time I’ve had him as my car attendant on the Coast Starlight, the first being last year about this time. The fun part of all this is that I first met Jay and his wife back in 2005 while riding the Navimag ferry between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales down in southern Chile. Jay, Fred and I all exchanged greetings and – with plenty of time to go before departure – I invited Fred onboard for an impromptu tour of the train. This is my 36th ride aboard the Coast Starlight so I’m a pretty capable guide.

Fred had ridden the Starlight before, but only in coach between Los Angeles and Oakland. Needless to say he was pretty impressed by the Pacific Parlour Car and the deluxe bedroom accommodations which, unlike the roomettes, are ensuite and include a shower.

Deluxe Bedroom on the Coast Starlight

Deluxe Bedroom seating

Deluxe Bedroom shower and toilet

An announcement rang out over the PA advising that departure of Amtrak’s train number 14, the northbound Coast Starlight was imminent. All visitors should now leave the train. I bid so long to Fred with a promise to upgrade him on his Alaska Airlines flights up to Anchorage and back later this summer. The doors were closed, the whistle sounded a couple of times and we were off, gliding smoothly out of the station and into the vast LA suburbs.

For many people, the name Coast Starlight suggests a ride predominantly along the Pacific coast. This is completely understandable given Amtrak’s somewhat misleading emphasis on coastal scenery along the route between Los Angeles and Seattle. On the cover of Amtrak’s brochure promoting the Coast Starlight is a picture of the train skirting the Pacific Coastline above Santa Barbara. The brochure then opens to a beautiful two-page spread of the Coast Starlight rolling through coastal splendor just south of Santa Barbara.

The Coast Starlight along the Pacific Coast north of Santa Barbara
Photo courtesy of Amtrak

The next page serves up yet another picture of coastal bliss with the statement: “Turn yourself over to the ultimate off-road adventure. The Coast Starlight is ready to carry you along the rugged Pacific Coast in complete and total comfort.” Continuing on, potential riders are advised to “Get up from your seat and wander around. Catch a view of America’s West Coast few people ever see.” Below this statement are two small pictures of coastal scenery and on the opposite page is yet another full page photo of the train heading north out of Santa Barbara.

Finally, on the last page: “Collect breathtaking scenic vistas along the ever changing Pacific Coast route that stretches from Los Angeles to Seattle.” This is accompanied by a map that clearly shows only a tiny portion of the route even touching the Pacific coast. For what it’s worth, only about 120 miles or 9% of the route’s 1390 total miles actually offer ocean scenery.

Route of The Coast Starlight

While everybody loves a view of the ocean, it’s a shame Amtrak doesn’t give equal billing to the spectacular non-coastal scenery along the route. There’s lots of it.

That said, the coastal scenery is very pretty indeed and we were fortunate to have a bright sunny day on which to enjoy it.

Enjoying the view from the Pacific Parlour Car

Refugio Beach from the Pacific Parlour Car

Pacific splendor from my room

North of Santa Barbara the Coast Starlight rolls through Vandenberg Air Force Base...

Rugged Pacific coast along Vandenberg Air Force Base

Rocket launching pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base

Soon after the route turns inland through the beautiful farmland and mountains of central California…

Pretty farm country south of San Luis Obispo

Wine country up by Paso Robles

Beautiful green hills north of Paso Robles

During the 10 minute stop in San Luis Obispo I was met by an old friend from Denali and her boyfriend. It had been over ten years since she’d worked in Alaska but we’d kept in touch over the years. She brought me a bag of California almonds, a loaf of homemade Pilot Bread that her boyfriend had baked and a bottle of my favorite hot sauce – Cowboy Caliente Sauce – made in nearby Pismo Beach. It was a nice sunny California afternoon and life could hardly have been finer.

At dinner I was joined by a lady who was born in the same room as her grandfather in a cabin in Kansas. She now lived in Jay, Oklahoma but was headed to Sacramento to visit her daughter. Also joining us was Arlene, a neighbor of mine from downstairs in my sleeper. I’d seen Arlene on two or three occasions during the trip and on each occasion she was having a tough time remembering her car and her room. This held true even downstairs in my car where there were only four roomettes and she was in the room right next to mine! She seemed reasonably lucid at dinner however and was well aware that she’d be detraining at Portland the next day. Completing our dinner table quartet was Guillermo, a Mexican national from Durango, Mexico. He spoke excellent English and was riding up to Salinas to visit his brother. He was a bit young to remember the good old days of Mexican railroading but said he was very impressed with how much room there was around his seat back in the coach car. Now he wanted to ride the train back down to LA as well.

After dinner I called a friend of mine who lives up in the hills above Los Gatos. We’d be meeting up in three days at a concert in Paso Robles and I just wanted to touch base. It just so happened that he was down in San Jose to drop his daughter off at a friend’s for the night. Really? Well I’ll be coming through there on the train in about an hour! With a twelve minute station stop and the train station not too far out of his way, he said he’d swing by and say howdy. Really? Any chance you could swing by a liquor store and pick me up a small bottle of Jack Daniels? No problem!

And so it was that I was met along the route for the third time today. Jay, who by now had witnessed friends meeting me in LA and San Luis Obispo already today, was impressed. Rock stars don’t have it so good! As for the whiskey, I find it goes well with rail travel. Mind you I’m not sitting in the lounge car getting tanked. It’s hard enough to walk around the train without being tipsy and to me personally there’s no joy in getting drunk. Rather, I enjoy a glass or three of good whiskey – preferably bourbon, actually – and I enjoy sharing a good time. Amtrak charges $7.00 per airline style mini and for the price of three of those I can get a big 750ml bottle that’ll pour many more amongst my onboard companions. I consider it money well spent.

We lost a lot of passengers at San Jose – traditionally the busiest station except Portland on the route - and by the time we pulled out of the Oakland suburb of Emeryville at 10:00pm I was the only one sitting in the Pacific Parlour Car. I could have headed back to the main Sightseer Lounge Car but I was pretty comfortable in the big overstuffed swivel chairs where there was also Wi-Fi available, a service offered only in the Pacific Parlour Car. Eventually a couple who’d boarded at Emeryville came in for a look around but for the most part it was a rare quiet night.

I should note here that the Coast Starlight is one of Amtrak’s most popular trains and from my experience it is usually very well patronized. I’ve also been involved in some pretty raucous parties in the lounge car, the most memorable of which involved a bunch of us heading up to Portland and Seattle to see the Grateful Dead in August of 1983.

We were running right on time as we accelerated out of Sacramento at midnight. This is one section of the trip where I’d love to be six or seven hours late someday. From Sacramento the Coast Starlight heads north to Chico, Redding and on to Dunsmuir before rolling past the base of 14,179’ Mt. Shasta and on into Klamath Falls. It’s some very pretty country up there that unfortunately is traversed in darkness on both the north and southbound runs of the Starlight. Indeed, I find it interesting that the only portion of the trip traveled under starlight is through the mountains, far from the Pacific coast. Still, I guess I can see how Coast Starlight sounds more alluring than Mountain Starlight.

If you wake up early enough and weather conditions permit, you’ll be treated to a pretty view of Mt. Shasta. It’s better yet if the train’s running a little late. Here’s a photo I took a few years ago in June when we were running about an hour late. It was 7:30am and the proximity of the summer solstice meant the sun was already fairly high in the sky.

Mt. Shasta as seen from the northbound Coast Starlight

This morning found me blissfully unaware of Mt. Shasta as we rolled by presumably on time at about 6:30am. Instead, I was lying in bed snuggled under my big wool blanket, too comfortable to be bothered with getting up for the view. That said, should any of you find yourselves riding northbound on the Starlight, particularly if it’s your first trip, I’d recommend getting up to check it out. I mean honestly, how often do you get to ride on a train within ten miles of a 14000 foot high volcano? So far as I know, this is the only place in North America and one of only a couple in the world where this could be said to be true.

The train makes a service stop in Klamath Falls, Oregon which translates to about ten minutes sitting at the station while trash is disposed of, water and ice are restocked and occasionally fuel is added. I quickly got dressed and hurried a couple of cars down to the station building where I picked up a copy of the local newspaper. Amtrak used to provide a copy of the morning paper to its First Class passengers but now that some of those papers are selling at $1.50 or more, this service is no longer offered.

While I was off the train I paused to take a couple pictures of our 60 year old Pacific Parlour Car…

Pacific Parlour Car at Klamath Falls

Pacific Parlour Car logo

Continuing north out of Klamath Falls, we stopped briefly at Chemult, Oregon (Serving Bend and Redmond) before beginning the long climb up into the Cascades. It was dark when I did this portion of the trip last week, so I was thankful for the daylight, diffused though it was due to clouds and snow flurries. Even though it was early April, winter wasn’t quite done with the Cascades yet.

Early Morning in the Pacific Parlour Car

70°F inside, 35°F outside

As we crested 4,852’ Cascade Summit and began the long descent down to the Willamette River valley, springtime returned to the Cascades. Snowy mountains gave way to green forests and bucolic pasture land as we followed the river down to Eugene, Oregon.

Descending through 4000’

Rocks tower above the train outside Eugene

At lunch I was joined by Brian & Jan Herbert. Brian is the son of acclaimed science fiction author Frank Herbert. The saying “Like father, like son” is particularly applicable in Brian’s case as he is the author of dozens of novels including multiple prequels to his father’s science fiction classic “Dune”. He and Jan were on their way home from a 30 day cruise around the South Pacific. No fan of airplanes, Brian preferred land based travels. He and Jan had been on a wide variety of cruises all over the world, not to mention a far variety of trains. We had a good time trading travel stories as well as recommendations. Though I’m not a big fan of science fiction writing, one of Brian’s more recent books, “Ocean” is described as “An Ecological Thriller” and sounds like a fun read. I’ll have plenty of time next fall while pursuing MVP75K status on Alaska Airlines.

We arrived about 10 minutes early into Portland, which allowed me a chance to visit the small gift shop inside the station. They sell a few items of interest to railfans such as t-shirts and magazines. I was looking for a small lapel pin embossed with the iconic logo of the Great Northern Railway. Surely you know the one, featuring a mountain goat perched atop a rocky promontory. I found it!

Outside the station I got a nice photo of two P42DC locomotives parked directly outside the station door – never seen that before! – in addition to a nice shot of the Spanish built Talgo Train awaiting its departure to Eugene.

P42DC locomotives parked at Portland Union Station

The Talgo Train sits at Portland Union Station

The ride north from Portland up to Seattle offers pleasant though hardly dramatic scenery. I spent a couple of hours with Brian and Jan up in the Pacific Parlour Car before having a light dinner in the diner and then returning to my sleeper to pack up and get ready for the next phase of this trip.

Dinner on the Coast Starlight

Some of the best coastal scenery on this trip comes as the Coast Starlight rolls north along the shores of the Puget Sound. At this time of year the sun sits low in the sky as we pass under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and then continue up the shoreline up to Seattle. North of Portland the skies had cleared and those of us with cameras ready were treated to some pretty sights…

Approaching the Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Tacoma Narrows Bridge in silhouette

The Puget Sound as seen from my sleeper

Pretty spring evening on the Puget Sound

It was 7:50pm when we powered past Boeing Field. A long row of freshly painted 737s could be seen awaiting delivery to their respective airlines. Two of them were destined for Seattle’s hometown carrier, Alaska Airlines. I look forward to flying upon them someday soon. At present I’ve flown all but 12 of Alaska’s 43 737-900s. Collect them all, I say!

An announcement rang out over the PA advising that our arrival in Seattle would be ten minutes early. While most passengers would greet this development with glee, for me it was a bit bittersweet. Here I had just spent the past eleven days and roughly 200 hours on seven different trains, and though my tickets showed a variety of different destinations, my real destination was the way I got there - traveling in comfort and enjoying decent food and drink, all while meeting some interesting people and journeying through some of the prettiest landscapes on the planet at a pace that allowed me to truly appreciate its beauty. I can’t wait to do it all over again someday soon!

Seattle’s King Street Station – A nice place to end the ride

At the same time, this trip is only just getting under way. Ahead lies a week long road trip through southern and central California followed by premium class travel to Chile and South Africa, not to mention a barbecue rendezvous in Kansas City and a spectacular narrow gauge train ride before I head back to work and start earning the money that will pay for my next adventure.

So – assuming you’re still with me and haven’t nodded off to sleep by now, let’s relocate to Seattle Tacoma International Airport to commence the next chapter in this grand adventure.
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Old Dec 26, 15, 3:14 am
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Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
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Posts: 9,670
April 09, 2015
Alaska Airlines Seattle to Los Angeles 1110a – 142p 737-700 First Class

It sure is nice to be able to sleep in – even when you’re sleeping in the airport. Comfortably prone atop my trusty Thermarest pad, I knocked off a good eight hours of quality sleep (as opposed to those poor wretches in the brightly lit and noisy seating areas who struggle to make do atop stiff backed lounge chairs). Life in the airport doesn’t have to be bad. You just have to know how to go about it and approach it with the right attitude. It also doesn’t hurt to be informed upon checking in that your exit row aisle seat has been upgraded to First Class. What a great start to a sunny day!

Following a refreshingly hot shower and a nicely chilled glass of orange juice at Delta’s Sky Club, I made my way back to the large food court in the Pacific Marketplace where a table by the window, hot coffee, a ham and cheese omelet and a copy of the Wall Street Journal awaited at Anthony’s Fish Restaurant.

After breakfast I spent a leisurely hour in Alaska’s Board Room before heading out to the North Satellite where my Los Angeles bound 737 awaited. The load was relatively light for this midday flight – so light in fact that despite arriving 30 minutes prior to departure I strolled unimpeded down the jetway to my window seat at row 2.

Service commenced with a round of hot towels that were not only hot but also lightly scented. Drinks and Snack Mix followed (a Bloody Mary for me, please) after which our flight attendant took a moment to describe and display this afternoon’s luncheon offering.

Today’s selection was a Southwest Salad with spice dusted chicken, corn, black beans, shredded cheddar cheese, tortilla strips and Cilantro dressing. It was one of the better airborne salads I’ve been served of late. A Cappuccino Chocolate from Seattle Chocolate Co. provided a sweet ending.

Alaska Airlines’ Southwest Salad

Arrival in Los Angeles was a few minutes early and, interestingly; our approach was from the west. From my experience at least, this is quite rare given the prevailing winds off the Pacific. Regardless, we were still faced with the usual long taxi around the perimeter of the airport to get to our gate in Terminal 6.

* * * * * * * * *

Over the past three days I’ve traveled roundtrip between Los Angeles and Seattle using premium class accommodations aboard both plane and train. In each case I have been provided excellent service and accommodations that would easily support the desire for a repeat trip aboard either conveyance. Both were equally good in different ways. Having logged nearly five million miles by air and only a quarter million miles by rail, I’m inclined to favor the train if only because I generally have the time and the gumption to actually enjoy the journey. Many people don’t. When it comes to travel, most of us focus on the destination – not the process. For those of you who do, the plane will always win out. For those of us who consider an enjoyable journey as integral to a good trip as the destination itself, premium class travel by train will always be a favored means of transport provided we have the time.


What a wonderful week I have ahead of me! It’ll include two concerts in beautiful outdoor amphitheaters as well as visits with friends in northern California – all of it connected by 800 miles of driving along some of the Golden State’s most scenic byways.

To that end, my first stop was Alamo Rent A Car where my Quicksilver membership had me in and out of the busy LA rental facility in less than five minutes and on my way to the cool and shady garage where a silver Hyundai Sonata awaited. Over the years I’ve really come to appreciate Hyundai’s full sized Sonata. The seats are comfortable and the car is spacious while delivering good performance and excellent fuel economy for a car of its size.

My first stop was an address in Glendale. About a month earlier I’d won an eBay auction for approximately 120 back issues of Airliner World magazine dating back to its earliest issues in the late 1990s. Airliner World is a British aviation magazine that provides detailed and colorful coverage of commercial aviation all over the world. Given the dollar’s exchange rate with the British Pound, each issue sells for $12.75 here in America. A year’s subscription can be had for $75.00. That’s a lot pricier than the locally published Airways Magazine out of Miami, so I generally abstain from purchasing Airliner World despite its excellent quality. I have however seen occasional lots of 5-10 back issues offered for bid or outright purchase on eBay. Most of these are still quite expensive, often selling for $8.00-10.00 per back issue. A year or so ago I just missed out on a chance to buy about 15 back issues for about $50.00. Ever since then I’ve checked back with eBay occasionally to see if any similar deals might be on offer. Most of the time there’s been nothing but the occasional lot of 1-2 back issues, so imagine then my surprise and delight when a month or so ago I came across a listing offering a huge collection of Airliner World back issues for just $79.00 plus $218.00 in shipping costs. One hundred twenty magazines are going to weigh quite a bit but $218.00 to ship them?!! The seller must be using UPS 2 day shipping! Knowing that I would be down in LA in the coming month, I immediately contacted the seller and asked if he might be willing to waive the shipping costs were I to stop by and personally pick the magazines up. To my relief, he was immediately amenable to this suggestion and so it was that two hours after arriving in Los Angeles I was on my way out of town with two large (and very heavy) boxes of magazines in the Sonata’s trunk.

The next stop on my itinerary was Mojave, California – home to the Mojave Air and Space Port, one of the six great airliner graveyards in the desert southwest. Of particular interest to me was a nicely preserved Convair 990 – in its day the fastest commercial jetliner produced. Its design included distinctive pods called "anti-shock bodies" mounted on the back of each wing and – like the American “Muscle Cars” built during the same era – it even looked fast. Introduced by American Airlines in 1963, the 990 was capable of cruising at 615 mph. Thirsty engines, 5 across seating and limited range put the 990 at a distinct disadvantage against Boeing’s 707 and Douglas’s DC-8. Only 37 990s were ever built and ultimately the plane represented a financial disaster for its manufacturer General Dynamics.

Mojave’s Convair 990

Airliners await their fate at Mojave

Leaving Mojave, I headed west along California State Highway 58 into Bakersfield, California. Years ago I used to hitchhike along this highway fairly often, occasionally spending the night behind large out of the way bushes or on one clear night in a nice, dry sandy wash. While I never had any complaints with my lot in life back then – and indeed thoroughly enjoyed the roughhewn adventure of it all – nowadays I am thankful to have the means to rent cars and stay in hotels. As such, it was with restful anticipation that I pulled into the California Inn where a large room and a King Sized bed awaited me for the night.

The next morning it was off to San Luis Obispo, continuing my westward journey along scenic and hilly Highway 58. There I checked into the local Super 8 motel – at $75.00/night perhaps the least expensive accommodation in town outside of the local hostel. While I’m not averse to staying in hostels now and then, I had a long night ahead of me while attending the Dark Star Orchestra’s concert up in Vino Robles. After the show, the last thing I’d want on a Friday night in a college town would be to try and sleep in a potentially noisy and crowded hostel. The $75.00 would be money well spent.

* * * * * * * * *

Between 1976 and 1995 I had the good fortune to attend over 125 Grateful Dead concerts. Given the band’s improvisational style and the intricate instrumental interaction between the band members, every concert was a musical adventure. Indeed, when the Dead got into a groove – rolling along like a big articulated steam locomotive with all parts perfectly in sync, they were in a league of their own. That is very likely why more guest musicians have played onstage with the Dead than any other rock band and more tribute bands and albums have been inspired by the Grateful Dead and their music – by far – than any other band.

Now I recognize that most of you have no more regard for the Grateful Dead than you do expired-date cat food so I’ll not wax further on their many musical virtues. Rather, I’ll tell you that the reason I’ve come to San Luis Obispo is to listen to a band called Dark Star Orchestra.

The Dark Star Orchestra is – in my opinion – the best of the many Grateful Dead tribute bands that have formed since the Dead played their final show in the summer of 1995. The DSO’s band members aren’t a bunch of casual hacks that get together for the occasional festival but rather they are a well-rounded group of talented and competent musicians that have played over 2200 shows since the band formed in 1997. I love their sound and in particular the guitar work of guitar player Jeff Mattson. Over the past ten years I’ve caught a couple dozen DSO shows and am really looking forward to these upcoming shows in Paso Robles and Ojai if only to check out the great venues at each location.

Again, given the presumed lack of interest in the music and the overriding fact that this is a travel oriented website rather than band review site, suffice it to say that I had a great time at both shows. In San Luis Obispo I met up with an old friend who drove down from the Bay Area for the show. The Vina Robles Amphitheater was a wonderful venue with great seating, superior acoustics and an excellent selection of food and beverage on offer. The band played a great setlist from a Dead show that I’d actually attended at Ventura County Fairgrounds back in July of 1985.

Vina Robles Amphitheater

Afterwards, we drove back down to San Luis Obispo, dropped off our cars at the hotel and then caught a cab downtown where we closed out the night with pizza and beer.

The next morning we headed back into downtown SLO where we found a nice corner bakery. It was a beautiful spring day and to sit outside in the morning sun at a table on the patio while savoring quality coffee and French pastry was just heavenly - California living at its finest.

Bidding farewell to my friend (We’d be getting together again in a few days) I found my way back to the 101 and accelerated south. Tonight’s show would be 130 miles down the road in Ojai, a beautiful town set in the mountains to the east of Ventura. Back in the 1970s I spent a considerable amount of time in and around Ojai. During the summer of 1975 you could often find me camped out in the woods at the back of Libby Park, located in downtown Ojai.

I remember splurging one evening and spending $12.00 for a cabin at the Ojai Rancho Motel, located just down the road from the swank Ojai Valley Inn. Now, forty years later, I thought I’d see if I could once again splurge and get a room at the Rancho for after the show. I was willing to spend up to $100.00 per night. Alas, I was a few years too late for a rate that economical. It was explained to me by the kindly motel owner that April is a popular time for weddings in Ojai and on this particular Saturday night the lowest rate she could provide would be $189.00.

Sigh… I could envision myself once again camped out (illegally, I might add) amidst the oak trees at the back of Libby Park but before I acted on that possibility I decided to do a bit of research into alternative accommodations. So it was that I discovered Airbnb, a website where you can book a room in someone’s house – often at rates substantially lower than at the local hotels.

After filling out an application that included a description of myself, my interests and travels, I applied and was accepted into a room at an apartment just a few short blocks from downtown. The cost was $58.00 for the night. My host was a nice if slightly eccentric guy named Mitch who set me up in a spacious room with a large queen sized bed. We spent a pleasant half hour chatting before Mitch headed out for dinner with friends and I made my way down to the Libby Park Amphitheater.

As for the show, I’ll let these pictures tell most of the story…

Libby Park Amphitheater

Dark Star Orchestra at Libby Park Amphitheater

Dark Star Orchestra at Libby Park Amphitheater

Dark Star Orchestra at Libby Park Amphitheater

For any of you curious about the Dark Star Orchestra sound or concert experience, please click HERE for a tasty sampling from a show I hit in Denver just a couple months ago.

The 2500 or so people gathered were almost entirely in the 30-60 year old age group, many of them tie-dyed and all of them a mass of mellow goodness. Now mind you that’s not to say they just sat there stoned and happy. There was plenty of dancing and many a bout of raucous cheering and applause in tune with favorite songs or a particularly spirited guitar or piano solo. Indeed, tonight’s jam through The Other One would have stirred up the brain cells of even the most fervent young Deadhead. Those of us in the crowd were definitely at attention.

Overall, I had a great time with my only real concern being avoiding the clouds of pot smoke wafting over the assembled masses. All of those old jokes about “Pass the Geritol” at concerts where most of the audience was young back in the 60s or 70s would not apply at tonight’s show. There was plenty of pot smoke hanging in the air as well as a few good looking mushrooms making the rounds back under the trees. Given the pre-employment drug screening that we drivers have to undergo each year, I didn’t want to take my chances with the tired old “secondhand smoke” defense.

After the show, I walked back to my accommodations for the night, located just five short blocks from Libby Park. There I joined my host Mitch in polishing off a half drunk bottle of Basil Hayden’s Bourbon that I’d purchased on my first day out of LA. Turns out Mitch had snuck into the second half of the show and had managed to take some pretty nice photographs of the band. A professional photographer by trade, he had some great looking photos to share. That said, all of the above imbedded photos were taken by yours truly with my trusty little Canon SX-160.

The next morning, I bid adieu to Mitch via a note left on the kitchen table as he was still asleep when I headed out at 9:00am. Following a hearty breakfast in town, I drove north along California Highway 33, the scenic “back road” through Matilija Canyon and up onto the Carrizo Plain, home to the largest single native grassland remaining in California. Continuing east along County Road 95 to Fraser Park, I then sped north on I-5 to California State Highway 99. Between the cattle yards, chemical plants and fertilizers, I vote this to be unequivocally the smelliest highway in America.

Back in the summer of 1992, I took the summer off to backpack around Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. We’re talking some long hikes, ranging from 60 to 190 miles in length. Between trips I’d come down to Fresno to resupply. My hotel of choice was the Golden Penny Inn, located off Highway 99 and Olive Avenue. Set on a side road that was home to four or five cheap motels, the Golden Penny was not the best of the bunch but it was certainly the most affordable. Back in the early 90s you could get a room there for just $18.95 per night. What I liked most about the Golden Penny – aside from the its affordability – was that the rooms were generally clean and above all quiet, my most cherished quality in any lodging establishment. The management also sold some pretty good pre-fab burritos downstairs in the office.

Alas, things have changed since those halcyon days of the early nineties. Six or seven years ago while driving through Fresno I pulled off the highway at Olive Avenue to find that the Golden Penny had been renamed and by all appearances had fallen on hard times. The sign was damaged and the building was in need of a fresh coat of paint. Out in the parking lot were two groups of young guys, many of them wearing wife beater t-shirts and exhibiting generally poor posture while drinking canned beverages and smoking cigarettes – or at least things that looked like cigarettes. Music was blaring from a car stereo. I continued on down the street to the Denny’s restaurant where coffee and a Grand Slam breakfast still tasted every bit as good as it did so many years earlier.

Fast forward to the present and I’ve improved my lot to a room at the local Days Inn. Located right next door to the Denny’s, this property sat on well-maintained grounds and offered spacious rooms and a swimming pool set amidst stately palms. At just $63.00 per night it provided a comfortable and quiet room while adding 2630 points to my Wyndham Rewards account.

Fresno Days Inn

The next morning I drove down to Fresno’s Tower District where a plate of delicious Huevos Rancheros and a copy of that morning’s Fresno Bee awaited. My next stop was the local UPS Store where I boxed up my new collection of Airliner World magazines and shipped them back to Alaska for a total price of just $59.00 and change – quite a nice savings from the originally advertised shipping cost of $218.00.

The next two days were spent visiting with friends in the hills above Grass Valley and Los Gatos. My spent my final night in California at the Montara Point Lighthouse Hostel. I could have stayed with my friend down in Los Gatos but I didn’t want to battle morning traffic and besides, I was actually looking forward to a return visit to the hostel.

Located on a beautiful stretch of coastline just forty minutes’ drive from SFO, the Montara Point Hostel offers a comfortable bed and spectacular coastal scenery for less than $35.00 a night. The lighthouse and its out buildings were originally built as a fog signal station in 1875. The lighthouse is still maintained and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The hostel has been in operation on site since 1980. Guests are accommodated in both shared and private rooms in the former Coast Guard quarters and the historic fog signal building. I took a spacious room in the fog signal building and, after a pleasant hour trading travel stories with a couple from Australia, I called it a night.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Feb 4, 16 at 7:11 pm
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Old Dec 26, 15, 3:15 am
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 9,670
April 15, 2015
American Airlines San Francisco to Dallas 1155a – 527p 767-300 First Class
American Airlines Dallas to Santiago 950p – 924a 777-200 First Class

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about this trip is how it’s quickly transitioned from one exciting chapter to another. There have been no doldrums. Staring out with a First Class jaunt to Hawaii, I’ve moved seamlessly on to a weekend of steak, bourbon and camaraderie in Indiana followed by an eleven day First Class rail odyssey around America and then a fun filled week of driving around sunny California while getting to listen to great live music and visit with old friends.

For me personally, any one of these chapters would qualify as a top notch travel experience - even going to Hawaii for a few hours if only just for breakfast. Combined, my past three weeks of travel represent just over 21000 miles of First Class adventure. For a lot of people, a trip of this scope and distance would represent adventure on the grandest scale. What really tickles me is that I’ve only just completed the first half. Now it’s on to the international portion!

I should add here that it is not my intention to tout my own travels relative to those of others. Above all I am humbly thankful that life has worked out to allow me the opportunity to take such wide ranging adventures. Many people don’t have that opportunity, regardless of whether they have either the time or the money. I feel truly blessed.

* * * - - - * * *

I awoke to a gorgeous morning on California’s spectacular Pacific coast. It was the kind of day that defines the quality of life and beauty for which the Golden State is so widely renowned. After showering and repacking, I savored a coffee and Danish with a few of my fellow hostellers, many of whom were headed off on adventures of their own – albeit none quite so immediately distant as mine. Before departing for the airport, I paused to take a couple of photographs from the front yard of the hostel…

Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel

Looking North up the Pacific Coast from Montara Point

From Montara it’s a short 35 minute drive up the coast and over the coastal mountains before dropping down into SFO. I had some concerns about locating SFO’s Car Rental Facility but those proved to be baseless thanks to the numerous well placed road signs which provided excellent direction. By 10:30am I was checked in and enjoying coffee and a nice view of the tarmac while seated at a table by the window at American’s attractive SFO Admirals Club. Had it been a bit later in the day I would have relished a beer or two from the impressive selection at the well-stocked bar.

An Impressive Selection at American’s SFO Admirals Club Bar

I’ll have to stop back here again sometime, preferably in the late afternoon with time to enjoy a cold beer or two before relocating to my First Class suite and jetting off into the setting sun bound for somewhere over the Pacific horizon.

Today however, I’ll have to settle for a Business Class seat masquerading as a First Class seat aboard a 27 year old 767-300. Truth be told, I’ve really been looking forward to this flight as I don’t get to fly aboard 767s all that often any more. I was on the inaugural flight of the type back in September of 1982 and though I’ve logged a respectable 121 total flights aboard 767s, this will be only my fourth flight over the past five years.

My 767 Awaits

I’ve never been one to queue up at the gate when a decent airline lounge can be enjoyed nearby. As such I showed up fashionably late for boarding (but still well within the prescribed parameters!), arriving onboard to find all of the First Class overhead bins filled to capacity AND my assigned seat occupied. Sigh… What’re you offering? Okay, 3A’ll do. Now then, about my carry-on bag… Off to the nether regions of the plane trod I, where I located an available bin back at row 17.

I’ve logged about a dozen flights aboard American’s 767s but this was my first time back in First Class since my very first flight on one between Dallas and Newark back in 1989. Things sure have changed over the past twenty-six years! Back then AA ran a three class configuration on its 767-300s with the First Class cabin featuring big, wide lamb’s wool covered recliners arranged 2-1-2. American’s current promotional materials would have me believe that the newfangled molded plastic and fabric contraptions masquerading as First/Business Class on today’s airplane are the cat’s meow but I’m not buying it. The seats are narrow and the cushions surprisingly hard. Overall, they’re not particularly comfortable for sitting in. Sure, the Wi-Fi is improved and the seats do indeed lie flat but That’s why this time I’m traveling on mileage points!

Before commencing my travels, I paid a visit to Flyertalk’s American Airlines Forum – specifically the thread dealing with inflight meal service. While I found very little commentary on the actual food being served, there was a surprising amount of angst driven commentary over AA’s apparent decision to dispense with linens on many of its domestic services. I think linens are a nice touch but I can think of a lot of other service cutbacks that would irk me more than the elimination of tray linens from my luncheon service. Indeed, I don’t believe I’ve seen linen on Alaska Airlines for at least two or three years now – maybe more. The more glaring omission from AA’s service was the lack of any pre-departure beverage service – not even a glass of water! Shameful!

Following a surprisingly spunky 22 second takeoff roll, we made an immediate turn to the east and were crossing over the shores of the East bay just two and a half minutes later. By then we were already climbing through 8000 feet and speeding along at an impressive 300 some odd miles per hour. I reclined my seat a bit and took in the view until our ever increasing altitude rendered the detail irrelevant.

We were 30 minutes into the flight when service commenced with a presentation of hot thin washcloths. Drink orders were taken and I was informed that the 8 year old Jim Beam Black label had been replaced with Canadian Club. Hmm… make mine a club soda with lime, please. Drinks were served with a ramekin of tasty mixed nuts and a promise to return shortly with the luncheon choices. While savoring that first crisp pull off my club soda, I took a moment to peruse American’s inflight entertainment selections.

U.S. airlines always play it safe with their movie selections, pandering to the conservative sensibilities of 90 year old Midwestern grandmothers or families with young children. It wasn’t always so. Back in the early 1970s, I remember seeing The French Connection on a flight. It was a fairly violent movie, though it did win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1972. I also remember seeing Beverly Hills Cop on a flight in the mid-eighties. That one was memorable because the censors had cleaned up Eddie Murphy’s dialogue to the point that he sounded more like an Oxford graduate than a rogue Detroit cop. Today’s movie was called “Paddington” - something about an animated bear… Maybe if I had kids…

This afternoon’s luncheon offerings were a choice between Ravioli or Chicken Breast with Broccoli and Polenta. It’s a rare occasion that I’ve been served good pasta on an airplane. More often than not it’s a mess of mediocre pasta and bargain-basement cheesy goo. Eastern Airlines used to offer a pretty decent chicken and rotini dinner back in the late seventies and I also recall Northwest serving up a halfway decent meat lasagna back in the eighties. In coach, no less. Since then – meh. I requested the chicken.

Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner!

Much to the dismay of any gourmands at Flyertalk’s American Inflight Dining forum, no crisp white linens were placed in advance of today’s meal. Instead I was presented a tray bearing a surprisingly attractive collection of appetizer, salad and main course. The appetizer was comprised of two devilled egg halves nestled amidst a patch of colorful garden fresh shrubbery that nobody but the most devout vegan would eat without salad dressing. I can’t help but wonder how much parsley and other greens must go to waste when employed merely as colorful food accents. I didn’t wonder for long, though. Mongo like devilled eggs! Mmm!!

The Mediterranean Salad consisted of zucchini, feta cheese and not one but three olives! The latter ingredient was notable to me at least because it was only forty or so years ago that American famously saved $40,000 per year in catering costs by removing a single olive from its dinner salads. With the elimination of all domestic coach meals, it was nice to see such a generous offering of olives with today’s salad. Unfortunately, I don’t like olives and so the effort was wasted. I briefly considered offering them to seatmate but she was wired into her laptop and tapping away with such fervor that I feared any interruption – especially one so trifling as an offer of free olives – would’ve been met with the back of her hand!

Ahem. Now then, on to the main dish – a decently sized portion of chicken breast accented with a colorful medley of green and red peppers. This was accompanied by a splot of polenta and a side of stewed broccoli. It all worked quite well, even with the glass of middling white wine.

It’s interesting in looking at the pictures above that today’s First Class meal is essentially a coach meal from the seventies. I don’t know how many of you were around back then, or amongst those of you that were might also have memories that include your inflight meals. Speaking for myself however, when it comes to airline food I have a memory right up there with the highest functioning Asberger’s Syndrome folks. And I ate a lot of coach airline food in the seventies! On most airlines the meals were very good and filling. Check out this picture of coach meals being served aboard a Pan Am 707 back in the day:

The Good Old Days of Inflight Dining

Granted, Pan Am didn’t fly domestically back then and their meals were catered to an international standard (Pan Am’s First Class International flights were catered by Maxim’s of Paris) but really, all of the U.S. carriers offered pretty decent fare. After all, since airfares were controlled by the Civil Aeronautics Board, the best means the airlines had of standing out in an effort to win customers was through great onboard service.

But enough reminiscing - for now. This is a long trip report and already the flight attendants are collecting any last cups and glasses in preparation for our landing at DFW. By the way, dessert was a chocolate torte, served separately from the main meal and tastefully topped with a plump red raspberry. The comparison to 1970s coach class service notwithstanding, this was a pretty nice flight by 2015 standards. Well done, AA.

Chocolate Torte Dessert

Even though we clearly landed at Dallas Ft. Worth International Airport, we taxied as if we’d landed over at Greater Southwest International Airport, located 5 miles to the south. It looked to me as if we taxied down the length of one side of the airport past the D & B terminals, then crossed over and headed up to the C terminal, but not before first going all the way up to the E and then turning around. Rather perversely I was reminded of an incident back in 1977 where a Japan Airlines DC-8 freighter loaded with cattle bound for Japan crashed when it stalled shortly after takeoff. Its relevance to today’s tale is that the captain’s blood alcohol level was found to be almost three times higher than the Alaska state limit for drivers at that time and – more to the point – the airplane had been observed having difficulty finding its assigned runway, at one point even said to be taxiing aimlessly about. Not that our captain or crew were in any way impaired of course, but that sure was an inordinately long and winding taxi to our gate.

* * * - - - * * *

Faced with a four hour layover and knowing no one in the Dallas Ft. Worth area, I hopped on the Sky Train and headed over to the D Terminal from whence my Santiago bound 777 would be departing.

Back in the day First Class service between the United States and Santiago was available via Braniff and Pan American as well as a host of South American carriers. These days American is the only airline still offering First Class service between North America and Santiago and even that is scheduled to be downgraded to a Business Class service in the near future. Additionally, the redemption for a First Class award on American between Honolulu and Santiago was only 62,500 miles. I think that’s a great deal considering the distance travelled but it still didn’t take the sting out of the fact that despite Dallas/Ft. Worth being American’s corporate headquarters as well as a significant international hub, there is no Flagship Lounge here. I can’t think of another airline from a developed country offering international First Class service that doesn’t have a top flight First Class lounge at its home port and busiest hub.

But wait – it gets worse! Upon entry to the Admirals Club I was greeted pleasantly enough and then presented with a single complimentary premium drink coupon. That’s it – just one. There was no mention of “Come on back for another one if you need it”. After all, we are talking International First Class service here. Is this how Doug Parker treats his guests at home? Honestly, this sort of parsimony would be comical if it weren’t such a poor reflection on the sad state of premium class service aboard our U.S. flag carriers. When it comes to making money, the U.S. airline approach is clearly focused on cutting costs rather than providing quality service. That’s why when it comes to international travel, they get my award points – not my dollars.

American’s DFW Admirals Club

The next three hours passed by quickly and uneventfully. As luck would have it I spied an unused drink coupon sitting near a clearly abandoned seat and so used it and my first coupon for a double Knob Creek on the rocks. Taking a seat in the Business center, I then bought myself some insurance, downloaded select songs from the two concerts I’d recently attended and then made my way down to the gate. Boarding was already underway with a fair sized line but my First Class boarding pass had me on my way down the jetway in no time. Waiting at the door was one of American’s more senior flight attendants who greeted me cordially and, after inspecting my boarding pass welcomed me into the First Class cabin with a wave of her hand. Thanks, I know the way!

The 777 operating tonight’s flight was N791AN, the One World Liveried airplane. Despite its shiny new exterior livery, inside this airplane looked no different than it did when it was delivered new to American back at the turn of the century. The original Flagship Suites, introduced amidst much fanfare back in 2000, are now old and dated compared to the latest offerings, including those of rival United Airlines. The cabin itself is more functional than elegant. The sixteen Flagship Suites are arranged 1x2x1 in stunted rows, and separated from one another by a grayish beige plastic faux tweed wrap around barrier. The overall ambience is rather bland. It should be noted however that American does offer a new and improved suite aboard its 777-300ERs but the -200s still soldier on with the original equipment which is slated to be removed and replaced with Business Class seating later this year.

American’s 777-200 Flagship Suite

American’s 777-200 First Class Cabin

On a more positive note, my Flagship Suite was as comfortable as it was functional. During takeoff and landing the seat must face in the forward position. Any other time however, it can be swiveled twenty degrees to face the built in ottoman or ninety degrees to face the windows. There are two different tables that can be used - one a large food and beverage type table that can be pulled up from the side wall, the other a smaller table that folds out as you face the windows. When the seat is swiveled towards the windows, you’ll have the best office in the sky since the smaller table that folds out from in front of the windows has ample space for a laptop or simple writing needs while at your side the larger dining table provides plenty of room for a briefcase with plenty of space left over for a drink and snacks.

At my seat were pajamas and slippers, individually packaged in plastic wrap. The wine list and menu had been laid on the table beside the seat, along with a bottle of water. A lightweight blanket, duvet and pillow were placed on the foot rest opposite the seat. A pleasing new age melody issued from the cabin speakers. I stowed my roll-a-board, set down my daypack and then fired off a couple of photographs before the cabin got too crowded. As luck would have it we had a fairly light load up front tonight with only six of the sixteen suites being occupied.

A flight attendant stopped by with a tray bearing plastic cups of water, juice and sparkling wine. True champagne is not offered because on international flights, duty must be paid on liquor being poured on the ground. That's why second tier carriers such as our U.S. airlines tend to provide only a limited pre-departure selection highlighted by a cheap sparkling wine. They don’t want to pay the bond.

Amenity kits were delivered next and I took a moment to inspect and photograph the contents. Presented in a nondescript grey suede zippered pouch, the kit contained the usual collection of creams, toiletries, tissues, socks and eyeshades one would expect for a flight of this length. While hardly as elegant as the First Class kits provided by many five star carriers, this kit was perfectly suitable for the needs of most passengers.

American’s First Class Amenity Kit

American’s First Class Amenity Kit

Surprisingly these Flagship Suites have never been upgraded with AC outlets and still provide only a miniscule 9” TV screen for IFE viewing. While I’m mildly surprised that American has never seen fit to address even the AC outlets over the past few years, I’m also thankful that these shortcomings will represent no great imposition on my flight experience as I intend to enjoy a nice dinner, read a bit and then try to get as much sleep as possible on this short eight hour and fifty-three minute flight.

Pushback was as punctual as a Swiss train and soon we were positioned at the head of the runway awaiting the go ahead from the tower. When it came the Captain throttled up the twin Rolls Royce Trent 800s powering our 500,000 lb. jet and the combined thrust of approximately 180000 lbf pushed us down the runway for a good 41 seconds until we had achieved sufficient speed to defeat the twin forces of gravity and drag. Rotation was almost imperceptible as we left terra firma and climbed ever so smoothly into the cool clear Texas night.

The forward cabin of the 777-200 can be pretty noisy during the first few minutes following takeoff but as we powered through 10000 feet the Captain throttled back the engines a bit and the cabin’s aural ambience became much nicer. I reclined my seat a bit, kicked up my feet and reached for my copy of the beverage menu. Hmm…

American’s Wine List



Bacardi Rum
Bombay Sapphire Gin
Tito’s Handmade Vodka

Canadian Club Blended Whisky
Dewar’s White Label Scotch Whisky
Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey

Brandy and Liqueurs
Bailey’s Irish Cream
DiSaronno Amaretto
Courvoisier V.S.O.P. Fine Champagne Cognac

Budweiser, Bud Light, Samuel Adams, Dos Equis, Amstel Light and Heineken



Gosset Grande Reserve

White Wine
Mugo Blanco
Château du Seuil Graves White

Red Wine
Killka Red Blend
Temporada 2011 Malbec

Dessert Wine
Quinta do Crasto LBV Port, Douro

The flight attendant working my side of the cabin was named Javier. With the light load up front we had time to chat a bit and he indicated that the two small flags on his uniform reflected his Colombian and Puerto Rican heritage. He’d logged a lot of hours serving American’s South America bound clientele and it was clear to see that he enjoyed his work immensely. Throughout the flight he provided a courteous and professional service in a quiet and understated style that would have made any airline proud. Great job, Javier!

We were 22 minutes into the flight when hot towels were presented. They were wonderfully hot and moist and yet surprisingly unscented. That’s alright. The heat and moisture were effectively refreshing and now I was ready for something to drink.

Although I was familiar with the Gosset name – the winery was established in 1584 and remains the oldest wine house in Champagne, France – I’d never drunk any of its champagnes. Now would be an excellent time for an introduction. Javier returned shortly with a crystal clear flute and, after presenting the bottle for my inspection, proceeded to pour me a glassful. A small ramekin of warmed mixed nuts accompanied the champagne.

Now then, on to the first sip… oh my, that’s quite nice! Full bodied and yet pleasantly flavorful; bubbly and yet not so effervescent as to distract from the flavor. I quite liked this champagne.

Now then, let’s have a look at that dinner menu…

American’s First Class Dinner Menu

Dallas to Santiago


Stuffed Zucchini Trio

With herbed goat cheese, humus and tahini

Lump Crab Salad
Accented with salmon caviar


Creamy Kale
Served with Parmesan croutons


Seasonal Greens with Hearts of Palm and Sweet & Spicy Pecans
Offered with premium extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar


Grilled Beef Filet

Accented with thyme jus, blue cheese potato gratin. sautéed spinach and mushrooms

Teriyaki Glazed Chicken
With wasabi mashed potatoes and sautéed mixed vegetables

Pistachio Crusted Tilapia
Presented with saffron basmati rice and vegetable medley

Cold Plate Sampler
Herbed roast beef, potato salad and deviled eggs


Traditional Ice Cream Sundae

Vanilla ice cream with your choice of hot fudge, butterscotch or seasonal berry toppings with whipped cream and pecans

Gourmet Cheese Plate
Smoked Gouda, Jalapeno Jack and Sage Derby

Warm Shortbread with Fresh Berries
Topped with fresh whipped cream

Cappuccino Mousse Cake

Hmm… I’ve never heard of lump crab but then I’ve never met a crab in either appetizer or entrée form that I didn’t like, so we’ll start with a plate of that please. Cream of Kale soup? You can actually make soup out of kale? Javier assured me that not only could one do so but that the soup was quite good, so I decided to go for a bowl of that as well. Salad? Of course! I love a good salad and by my experience American presents some of the best salads aloft. Now then, for the main course… If it were earlier in the day I might take a gander at the Grilled Beef Filet but this late at night red meat has a tendency to sit heavy in my stomach which – for me at least – is not conducive to a good night’s rest. I’m not a big teriyaki fan, but man, if that Pistachio Crusted Tilapia is anywhere near as delicious as it sounds, I think I’ll be very well sated indeed.

It didn’t take me long to finish off that glass of Gossett, and so while I awaited the appetizer I requested a small sampling of the Killka Red Blend. And yes, I’ll accompany the crab with another glass of the Gossett, please!

My table was soon set with plain white linen topped by a beige place setting topped with a bread plate, a butter dish, a salt and pepper set and a silverware set.

Flagship First Class table setting

The lump crab arrived shortly thereafter. Presented on an attractive square plate and accompanied by three slices of watermelon, it was lightly spiced but still quite tasty and would have gone down even better with the addition of some good crackers or a breadstick.

Lump Crab Appetizer

The soup arrived in a decently sized bowl and was accented with a sprinkling of flavorful croutons. The kale seemed to provide more color than flavor but overall I was pretty impressed. Indeed I wouldn’t mind another encounter with this soup on a future American fight.

Creamy Kale Soup

I’ve said it before but let me say it again – American Airlines serves some of the best First Class salads I’ve ever eaten aloft. Tonight’s version was exactly as advertised – an attractive selection of mixed greens accented with hearts of palm and deliciously crunchy sweet and spicy pecans. The zesty balsamic vinaigrette was the perfect dressing and by the time I’d polished off the last crunchy pecan I was well and truly appetized for the main course.

Another great American Salad

Would you believe this is the first time I can ever recall having been served Tilapia on an airplane? I’ve seen it on a lot of menus but for whatever reason I had always ordered something else. Well I’m sure glad I ordered it tonight because I strongly suspect that the plate I was served on this flight would’ve pleased even the most discerning earthbound gourmand – provided it was a blind tasting and they didn’t know they were eating airplane food. Honestly, the fish could hardly have been prepared any better. The meat was moist and tender, the crust deliciously crisp and the buttery sauce downright delectable. Well done, American!

Pistachio Crusted Tilapia

For dessert I requested the Warm Shortbread with Fresh Berries, but with a scoop of vanilla ice cream instead of whipped cream. Mmmm! Decadence incarnate!

Warm Shortbread with Fresh Berries

We were an hour and forty-five minutes into the flight when the last of my plates were cleared away. A look at the Sky Map indicated we were out over the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, speeding towards the Yucatan Peninsula and beyond.

American’s Sky Map

Having started the day in California where the clocks read two hours earlier, I wasn’t all that tired. Even so, I knew I needed some sleep because it wouldn’t come easy once I got to Santiago. As such I requested that Javier please set up my suite for sleeping while I headed to the forward lav to practice a bit of dental hygiene.

Bedtime on American’s 777

The cabin was dark when I returned to my suite, and given the light load I decided to take a chance and so removed my pants so I could sleep more comfortably in my underwear. I’m not a pajamas guy and I’ve been wearing boxers since I was but a wee lad. Besides, I doubt anyone would scream if they saw me as I could just as easily be a guy in a pair of shorts. Another glass of wine and a few pages from my book of the week soon had me tired enough to call it a night. I slept for about five hours before waking about 200 miles north of Santiago.

It was a bit late to serve me a full breakfast, but Javier was kind enough to bring me out a nicely presented tray bearing fruit, pastry, orange juice and coffee. It hit the spot perfectly, especially the pastry which was surprisingly good.

Breakfast Over South America

While enjoying my coffee and pastry, I couldn’t resist checking out the menu to have a peek at what I’d traded in that extra hour of sleep for:


Three Cheese and Poblano Pepper Omelette

Served with chicken apple sausage and roasted potatoes

Fresh Fruit Bowl
Served with granola and Greek yogurt

From The Bakery
A selection of warmed breakfast breads and pastries

Descent into Santiago

Meal trays were gathered, personal items were stowed away and announcements were made instructing us to return seatbacks to their full upright positions. The engines whined as minor course adjustments were made to line us up properly for Runway 17R. As we glided over the perimeter fence, the runway stripes zipped by beneath us and finally with a gentle bump we kissed terra firma and braked to taxi speed.

The eight hours and thirty-nine minutes required to deliver us 4,890 miles from Dallas to Santiago had passed by quickly and effortlessly, thanks in no small measure to the comfort of American’s Flagship Suite and the top flight service delivered by Javier and his crew.

American’s International First Class Flagship Service may not be considered amongst the world’s most elegant, but on this flight at least the crew and the product combined to make a long flight seem both pleasant and short. Well done, American!!

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jan 8, 16 at 2:03 pm
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Dec 26, 15, 3:20 am
Original Poster
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I passed through Chilean immigration with surprising alacrity. Even the police dogs being led around baggage claim were wagging their tales and putting off a friendly vibe. My only complaint with the entire process was that the immigration hall was stiflingly humid. I was a sweaty mess by the time emerged into the arrivals hall.

Following a quick visit to the men’s room, I returned in a clean shirt and purchased a ticket aboard the Tur-Bus shuttle into downtown Santiago. This is a great service offering double-decker bus service every twenty minutes (or so). I don’t remember how much I paid but it wasn’t much and in any event it was far more affordable than a taxi or airport limo. The shuttle service terminates at the huge Alameda Bus Terminal, which was perfect for me. Not only did it offer secure baggage storage but I it was also the departure point for my onward transport to Castro, located 800 miles south of Santiago on the island of Chiloe.

With only four days to work with until I was to continue on to South Africa, I treated my time in Chile as a long layover rather than as a destination. As such, a quick trip south to the island of Chiloe accomplished two goals. First, it allowed me a two day visit to the island and specifically to Castro, Chiloe’s capitol city which I’d never before visited. Secondly, it afforded me a chance to enjoy a couple of scenic rides aboard two of Chile’s finest long distance inter-city bus companies.

Now I know what you’re thinking – why on earth would any self-respecting FlyerTalker ever submit to a bus ride any longer than from the hotel to the airport?! Has ‘Ol 2A finally lost his marbles? Allow me to elucidate upon why I’ve chosen to ride the bus …

When thinking of Latin American busses, many people envision an old school bus garishly painted with dingle balls and crosses decorating the top of the windshield, packed from the roof to the last row of seats with all manner of humanity, small farm animals and assorted baggage. Of course, none of these busses would be complete without the little statuette of Our Lady of Guadalupe mounted upon the dashboard to assist in the safe completion of the journey. Once upon a time this type of bus was commonly seen in most rural areas. Some examples still exist today in extremely rural areas as well as most any Rainbow gathering.

Like many countries, air travel was historically very expensive in Chile and Argentina. Trains handled most of the transportation needs in the early twentieth century but, as the highway infrastructure has slowly improved over the past fifty years, busses began to play a larger role in the country’s transportation needs. As for the railroads, old equipment and poorly maintained rail beds along with disgruntled and demoralized employees contributed to slower trains and unreliable service. Meanwhile, just across the continent in Brazil, some of the world’s finest busses were being produced and marketed throughout the region.

The modern long-distance inter-city busses serving Chile, Argentina and Brazil are very likely the finest of their type in the world. Certainly they are far superior in comfort and amenities to anything I’ve ever seen or ridden upon in America, Europe, Australia or Africa. Above all, these busses represent affordable, comfortable and reliable inter-city transport at about one fourth the cost of taking the plane.

Just how nice are these busses? Let’s compare for a moment with the finest examples in America and Australia, both of which I’ve ridden quite a bit. American and Australian busses, operated by companies like Greyhound and McCafferty’s, uniformly offer four across seating, arranged 2-2. Seat pitch would be about 32” with minimal recline. Televisions are generally available for movie viewing but as there are no headphones, the entire bus is forced to at least listen to whatever film is playing. Onboard toilet facilities are available, as is air conditioning and stops are made along the way at appropriate mealtimes. All things considered, America and Australia offer decent service aboard some pretty nice busses.

In Chile, three different levels of service are available on most major inter-city markets. All long distance busses offer air-conditioning, water and toilet facilities.

Servicio Comun: Four across, 2-2 seating. Many of these busses also offer television.

Semi-Cama: Four across, 2-2 seating but much-improved seats with deeper padding, leg rests and much greater recline. Seat pitch is about 43”. Movies and music channels are standard, and some companies offer headphones. Hot or cold meals and/or snack services are generally offered on longer trips. A bus Attendant is on board for all services.

Coche Cama: Three across, 1-2 seating. The seats are wide, deep and plushly upholstered, about the same as a 767 First Class domestic seat but with more padding. Seat pitch is about 50”. The recline is about the same as the original First Class sleeper seats of the 1970s and 80s. Blankets and good quality pillows are provided. Movies and music channels are standard, as are headphones. A bus Attendant is on board for all services.

Finally, some routes also offer an improved version of Coche Cama called Cama Suite. The services and amenities are the same as Servicio Cama with the main difference being that the seats recline to a full 180°. Hot or cold meals and snack services are occasionally offered on longer trips and on the finest services wine and cocktails might accompany your dinner.

Without a doubt, bus travel has been elevated to an art form down here in southern South America. Even though I could very easily afford plane travel, I do enjoy a quality travel experience, not to mention all the beautiful Chilean countryside that I’d not get to see were I to take the plane. So – without further ado, let’s switch now from the flightpath to the highway.

* * * - - - * * *

After a pleasant afternoon spent in Santiago’s Providencia district, I returned to the Alameda Terminal to await the departure of my bus to Castro. Only one bus company called ETM offers direct service between Santiago and Castro so that was the one I booked with. Normally I don’t mind connections but given my early evening departure from Santiago, utilizing the nonstop service meant I could avoid being rousted from my slumber via an early morning connection in Puerto Montt. Unfortunately it also meant I’d also have to travel in Coche Cama as all of the 180° Cama Suite seats were sold out

My bus for tonight’s journey was the ever ubiquitous Marcopolo Paradiso GV-1800 DD motor coach. Built in Brazil and powered by Mercedes, the 1800 DD is one of the most popular inter-city motor coaches in all of South America. If it were an airplane, it would be the equivalent of a 737-800.

My ETM Paradiso GV-1800 DD

Another view of the ETM Paradiso

Measuring over 45’ long and rising over 14’ high, my bus featured premium class seating on two separate levels. Upstairs on the main level are six rows of 1-2 configured Cama Suite seats. Downstairs is the Coche Cama cabin containing just four rows of 1-2 configured Coche Cama seats. Regardless of which class you are traveling, all of the seats are wide and plush, comparable in size to what you’d find in domestic First Class or International Business Class and every bit as comfortable if not more so.

Coche Cama seating with ETM
Note the large leg rest that folds down from the seat in front

Plenty of room to recline

Mounted in the front bulkhead of the First Class cabin is an almost 20” television screen, much nicer than the usual 13” ceiling mounted screens found on most busses. Just outside the doorway to the cabin is a large lavatory and a stairway leading to the upper level. Next to the stairway is a hallway leading to the driver’s compartment.

A pillow and blanket had been placed at each seat, along with a small set of ear plugs. The pillow was of decent size and density too, definitely not one of those cheap little things like the airlines used to pass out. The red blended wool blanket was large and warm.

After getting my gear stowed away under the seat, I sank into the deep cushioned comfort of my seat and checked out the controls. Although there was nothing electronic about the seat, the recline button was easy to use and the total recline was as advertised – about 70°. Reading lights and air vents were located within easy reach overhead. Though I wasn’t seated in the top of the line product, I was confident that this would be a very comfortable ride indeed.

It was, too! After reading a hundred pages or so from my latest book, I fell asleep about midnight and didn’t awake until we were just getting ready to drive aboard the ferry that would take us across the Chacao Strait to the island of Chiloe. It was about 8:00am. Comfortably reclined, I’d slept entirely through our long stop at Puerto Montt and awoken barely in time to be served a cup of hot coffee and receive my breakfast snack box.

Oh yeah, there was one negative aspect to this trip. Due to increases in the cost of petrol since my last bus ride in Chile, hot meals were no longer offered. Thankfully I thought to ask about this while purchasing my tickets earlier this morning and so made a point to buy a couple of chicken sandwiches and bottled waters before my 7:00p departure. Indeed, the only semblance of food offered during the entire 17 hour journey was that morning snack box which contained a hard roll, some butter and a packet of cookies.

Arrival into the Castro bus terminal was right on time. I collected my bags and summoned a taxi to take me to my hotel.

The Castro Bus Station


Chiloé Island is the second largest island in Chile (behind Tierra del Fuego), and is the fifth largest island in South America. The landscape is comprised of lush rolling hills, dense forests and impressive coastline. The climate is similar to the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island – which is to say it rains. A lot. The locals say it rains just twice a week – once from Monday until Thursday and then again from Friday until Sunday. That’s cool by me – I’ll only be here for a day.

My first trip to Chiloe was in 1999. I made a day trip from Puerto Montt down to Ancud, the second largest city on Chiloe. I was immediately impressed not only by the natural beauty of the island but also the colorful stilt houses (palafitos) and distinctive old churches. I was also quite taken with a local meat, potato and seafood stew called curanto. I had to return for a second serving.

The capital city of Castro is located midway down the island on the east coast. Through Lonely Planet I found a decently priced hotel that was located just one block off the central plaza. Now I know that many of you snicker derisively at the mere mention of Lonely Planet but quite frankly they’ve served me pretty well over the years. While I certainly don’t bemoan anybody the swank digs of a Starwood or Hilton type hotel, I feel right at home in the comparatively more humble accommodations found at places like the Hotel Esmerelda. Without question, money is also an issue. This isn’t a once yearly two week vacation or a weekend fling. This is a trip. All told I’ll be away from home for seven weeks. I’ve got to watch my expenses. As ever, my prevailing mindset is that money saved on nightly accommodations is well spent extending how long I get to stay out and play. Besides, my main purpose in coming down here is to see Chiloe, not hang out in a fancy hotel room.

True to its nature, it rained almost the entire time I was on Chiloe. It wasn’t until I was leaving town, safely ensconced on the upper level of an ETM scenicruiser that the clouds parted – however briefly – and allowed us a bit of sunshine. Here are some pictures:

Broad walkways surround the central downtown plaza

A fountain graces one corner of the plaza

No plaza would be complete without a bandstand

The Church of San Francisco

Colorful old buildings abound around Castro

My hotel room

On the bus trip back to Santiago, I scheduled a connection through Puerto Montt so that I could sample the premium Cama Suite product of competitor Tur-Bus, the largest bus operator in Chile. It wasn’t any better or worse than ETM. Indeed, it was pretty much exactly the same with no hot meals, coffee and sweets in the morning and very comfortable seats. Strange but true fact here – I’ve actually slept better in these South American bus suites than I have on many First Class airline suites. My return trip to Santiago was no exception. Here are some more pictures…

The best seats on the bus are in row 1 on the upper deck

The view from my forward suite upstairs

Riding the ferry across the Chacao Strait to the Chilean mainland

Cama Suite seating aboard Tur Bus

In Santiago I splurged and shelled out $116.00 USD for a room at the Diego Almagre Hotel. Conveniently located just five minutes away from Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, the Diego Almagre Hotel offered large, well-appointed rooms and a full service restaurant on site. Best of all its proximity to the airport would allow me to sleep in as opposed to the 5:00am wakeup call I’d have been facing had I stayed in one of the less expensive hotels in downtown Santiago.

My room at the Diego Almagro
Large – compared to my usual digs…
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Old Dec 26, 15, 3:23 am
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Does adventure still exist in the world of commercial aviation? Some might argue that true adventure existed only in the days of tree hugging tri-motors or island hopping Pan Am Clippers, and that it ended with the advent of jet travel and the deregulation of the airline industry. Today, one hundred and twelve years after the Wright Brothers first took to the air, flying has become so commonplace that for most people it elicits no more sense of adventure than a trip to the grocery store.

That said I believe that adventure can be found in anything that’s new and exciting; be it a trip by car to a previously unexplored corner of your country or a visit to a new restaurant in town. In the case of commercial aviation – I consider a flight or two aboard a new airline and/or aircraft to be adventure of the highest order regardless of the destination.

Over the many years that have passed since my first flight aboard a United Caravelle back in 1963, I have had the good fortune to log over five thousand flights aboard one hundred and seventy eight airlines. While those are impressive totals by any measure, my passion still burns bright to go out and fly aboard another one hundred seventy-eight airlines – and then some.

Two years ago I applied for and received a status match with United Airlines which subsequently allowed me to pursue and accrue enough mileage to then take advantage of some very generous awards and routings aboard the Star Alliance’s many member carriers. I attained 1K status during my very first year of participation and then followed that up my second year with another 82000 miles of flying. Having earned an impressive bank of mileage to withdraw from, I was able to then enjoy premium class travel aboard the likes of hitherto unflown airlines such as ANA, Asiana, Austrian, EVA, Lufthansa, Singapore, South African, Thai and Turkish Airlines. The crowning jewel – and indeed the impetus for my decision to focus on Star Alliance mileage – was a First Class flight between Buenos Aires and Frankfurt aboard Lufthansa, comfortably sat upstairs on their 747-400 in a big comfortable lounger with a full length bed beside me, all the while reveling in Lufthansa’s famed Senator Service, red rose and all.

Today I am redeeming the last 45000 miles in my once burgeoning Mileage Plus account toward a one way Business Class award between Santiago, Chile and Cape Town, South Africa. The beauty of this award is in the routing and the airlines involved. Out of Santiago I’ll commence today’s adventure with my first ever flight aboard Avianca, the world’s second oldest continually operating airline. We’ll be flying 2,650 miles up to Bogota aboard Avianca’s recently delivered 787-8. Although this is not my first flight aboard a 787, I approach this flight with the same excitement as I would for a first flight given that this’ll be my first flight aboard Avianca’s version of the 787. I know, I know, all of you pragmatic types are probably shaking your heads in baffled wonderment at this but what can I say? I got it bad…

From Bogota it’s on to Panama City where I’ll switch to yet another new airline for me, Panama’s COPA. It’s a 3160 mile flight from Panama City down to Sao Paulo, Brazil – aboard a 737 no less – and yet even then my sense of adventure is piqued with anticipation toward trying out COPA’s spacious long haul seating configuration aboard its 737-800s.

From Sao Paulo to Johannesburg I’ll be flying 4620 miles across the vast expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean aboard South African Airways’ colorful A340-300, I’ve often looked over my map of international routes flown and long desired to have a line in place connecting South America with Southern Africa. That I’ll now be doing so while wining and dining aboard SAA’s well regarded Premium Business Class represents – for me at least – the height of airborne adventure.

Just thinking about all of these new airlines, aircraft and routes has been enough to make sleep difficult over the past few days. If you’re even half as excited as I am, then by all means go pour yourself a refill of whatever it is you’re drinking. Feel free to take a moment to grab a plate of snacks or a sandwich if you’d like. I’ll wait. When you get back we’ll head out to Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport and get this adventure on the road – er, runway!

April 20, 2015
Avianca Airlines Santiago to Bogota 809a –1146a 787-800 Business Class
Avianca Airlines Bogota to Panama City 219p – 357p A320-200 Business Class
COPA Airlines Panama City to Sao Paulo 924p – 620a 737-800 Business Class

The Diego Almagro Hotel offers convenient and complimentary airport shuttle service 24 hours per day. As I was looking forward to enjoying the benefits of a visit to Avianca’s new Sala VIP/Star Alliance Lounge, I’d signed up for a ride on the 6:00am shuttle.

Once I’d finally located it, check in at Avianca’s Executive Class counter went quickly and smoothly. This was good because unless you’re flying Santiago’s hometown airline LAN, there are no Fast Trak or Premium Class lanes at the security checkpoint. Even at this early hour the line of humanity was considerable, extending 30-40 yards out into the terminal before snaking through three or four switchback lanes. By the time I cleared it and presented myself at the lounge reception there was just less than an hour before my flight was due to depart.

While investigating lounge options at Santiago during the planning stages of this trip, I discovered that prior to the recent opening of Avianca’s Sala VIP lounge, Star Alliance passengers had no lounges available to them at all in Santiago. By contrast, OneWorld members have long had a choice of American’s Admirals Club or one of three LAN lounges. Delta also operates a lounge at SCL. As such, the opening of Avianca’s Sala VIP lounge is indeed a most welcome event.

Following the signs, I made my way down the concourse to gate 12, then proceeded downstairs one level to the lounge entrance. Bare walls and pipes accompanied my downward journey, lending the distinct impression that I was heading down into an auxiliary storage area. Upon entering the lounge I saw little to change that impression. Oh sure, the walls had been painted and new if very plain and functional furniture had been installed but in every other respect – from the exposed pipes to the stark overhead lighting, this lounge smacked of ex-storage room.

Avianca’s Sala VIP Lounge at Santiago

In the center of the room was a long, narrow food service area topped with a selection of cereals, pastries and a platter of the ever ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwiches or ham and cheese rolls. A George Foreman type griller was available for heating them up.

Seating was comprised of cheap white tables and chairs with some long cushioned couch type seating along the walls. Clearly this was not a lounge I’d care to spend any more time in than necessary, so I helped myself to a small bowl of cereal along with a grilled ham and cheese roll and then took a seat at one of the tables just long enough to scarf it all down.

Buffet offerings in the Sala VIP Lounge

A morning snack before the flight

Right! Now then, let’s go check out that 787!

My flight was scheduled to depart from gate 18 and though the difference between the lounge’s location at gate 12 and gate 18 doesn’t sound like much, I thought it was a surprisingly long walk. Still, the sight of the gleaming white and red 787 awaiting me at gate 18 was worth the shoe leather. What a beautiful airplane!

So much has been said about the technological advances evidenced in the 787’s composite airframe but often lost in the impressive technical details is how pretty a plane the 787 is. It has very graceful lines, especially in the wings and the forward fuselage. With the jetway attached to door 2L, I was afforded an excellent opportunity to admire the forward fuselage.

Avianca’s 787 awaits its early morning departure at Santiago

When the initial boarding announcement was made, I was ready to go. Normally I’m not in any great rush to hurry on board an airplane just so I can immediately sit down and wait, but when it comes to flying onboard a new or rarely flown airplane that’s being operated by a hitherto unflown airline I’ve been known to make an exception. This being only my second flight on a 787 and my very first on Avianca, I was perhaps a tad more eager than usual.

Greeting us at the door were a phalanx of bright red clad flight attendants. I counted four of them though I’ll be snookered as to why there were so many of them. In any event, boarding passes were inspected and directions issued – in my case ”a su izquierda , Señor”.

Avianca’s 787s are configured with 28 Business Class and 222 Economy Class seats. The dark gray Business Class seats are individually housed in white pods arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. The look is clean and modern though not particularly warm and comfortable.

Whaaaat?! How could I write in anything less than the most glowing terms about such an exciting new product?! Call me an old timer if you will but I remember when premium class seats were large and downright plush. There was plenty of space around them and they were typically upholstered in fabrics and colors that exuded a sense of warmth and comfort. The overall effect was downright welcoming. By contrast, these Avianca Business Class seats – like those of many other airlines today – look impressively functional but not particularly comfortable.

Now granted, those big premium class seats of old weren’t designed to lie flat. Nor did they incorporate inflight entertainment systems, electric outlets and in-seat storage areas. Part of the problem is that “plush” is great for sitting in but not necessarily optimal for sleeping on. To that end, the best lie flat sleeping surfaces incorporate firmer, more supportive cushions. As a result, today’s modern 180° lie-flat seats are often pretty stiff to sit on because they’re ergonomically designed to be an optimal sleeping surface rather than a sitting platform.

The second problem is the modular pods that many modern Business Class seats are housed in. While they’re well designed to incorporate all the essential seat side amenities such as table, storage areas and a large screen for viewing the IFE, they often don’t leave a lot of room around the seat. The molded sidewalls are right up next to the seat side and to me at least the effect can be a tad claustrophobic.

That said, it is what it is. Here I am about to embark on a five hour flight up to Bogota aboard an airplane so new it first took to the air just five months earlier. Look at the size of those windows! And check out that good looking pillow and blanket waiting on the seat. And check out that – excuse me a moment – Sí por favor, a glass of orange juice would be very nice, thanks. And look, here’s a nice looking amenity kit. Might as well take a seat and start enjoying the service!

Avianca’s 787 Business Class seat

Seat side lighting, controls and connections

The Amenity Kit

The load to Bogota was fairly light this morning – the plane was perhaps 60% full – and so boarding was accomplished quickly. Doors were closed, announcements were made in both Spanish and English and soon we were pushing back from the gate. Out my window was an impressive lineup of three LAN 787s parked down the concourse. I paused to take a picture…

A trio of LAN 787s

Poised at the head of runway 17L, I listened as the captain powered up our twin Rolls Royce Trent 1000s and soon had us thundering down the runway with impressive speed and power. Up front in seat 2A, the sound was surprisingly muted and yet just loud enough to suggest that all 18000+ components of the engine were efficiently at work. V1 was reached and, rotating smoothly, we soared into the cloudy skies above Santiago.

It was quite a long time before we received anything that could be construed as service. Finally a flight attendant came around with a tray bearing a collection of tepid wash cloths. These must be the “hot towels”. I looked at my watch. We were 49 minutes into the flight. A look at the Sky Map indicated another 4 hours and 28 minutes left in the flight. Speaking of which, the Sky Map was wonderful with functions that allowed you to check out a preview of the flight and total route as well as views on the flight from the perspective of your current location as seen from alongside and overhead.

Avianca 787 Inflight

Avianca 787 Sky Map

Avianca 787 Sky Map

Fifteen minutes later yet another flight attendant arrived with a stack of menus which she doled out in much the same manner that teacher’s aides distributed the test booklets I received in college so many years ago. Interestingly, the menus covered meal offerings for ALL of Avianca’s long distance services between South America and North America as well as longer intra-South America flights such as this one between Santiago and Bogota. Let’s see what’s for breakfast…

Avianca’s Business Class Menu Booklet

Santiago to Bogota

Fresh Fruit Salad


Ham and Cheese Omelette

Served with sautéed potatoes and tomatoes

Apple Crepes
Accented with vanilla sauce

Cereal and Yogurt

Warm bread, butter and jam

A typical breakfast for me at home is a bowl of hot or cold cereal and maybe some yogurt and/or fruit. When it comes to eating breakfast out however – be it in a restaurant or on a plane – I will always opt for something hot, preferably the egg dish. Orders were taken from front to back and given my fortuitous location in seat 2A, my choice was available in abundance.

Breakfast was presented all on one tray and included a croissant. A fruit plate graced one corner of the tray. The omelet was served in a small porcelain dish with a decently sized portion of potatoes and four cherry tomatoes. It was difficult to detect the classic flavor combination of ham and cheese given the miniscule portions of each but the omelet was hot and the croissant was flaky so I was generally satisfied.

Breakfast over Bolivia

Why is it however that so much of the coffee served in South America is powdered? This is particularly true aboard its airlines. I mean, we’re talking about a continent that produces some of the world’s finest coffee and yet I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been served lackluster powdered coffee. In Avianca’s case, not only was the coffee powdered but so was the creamer! We’re talking about the national airline of Colombia, one of the top coffee producing countries in the world! Juan Valdez would roll over in his grave if he knew we were being served this swill.

Trays were cleared in a timely manner, but after that unless I used the call button I never saw the flight attendants again. A brief reconnaissance to the back of the plane revealed a gaggle of them laughing hysterically over something in the rear galley. A return to the front of the plane revealed that the forward galley was deserted. Hmm…

Now I realize that when it comes to premium class service amongst South American airlines, Avianca has never been considered one of the elite practitioners but surely its service can’t always have been this lackluster. I’ve got a few 1970s era brochures and menus from airlines like Varig, Aerolineas Argentinas, LAN Chile and VIASA that suggest the level of service – and even the coffee – was once much better, even in Coach. I remember flying First Class on Aerolineas Argentinas back in 1986 and the food and beverage service was outstanding. We dined on fois gras and stuffed pheasant while our wine glasses were never left wanting. A pair of 1983 flights in economy aboard colorful Ecuatoriana 720Bs was memorable for the quality and quantity of the meals, not to mention the melodious whine of those Pratt & Whitney JT3D-3Bs. Those were good days to be a passenger aboard South America’s airlines.

With three hours left in the flight I decided to check out the inflight entertainment system. While clearly not on par with the very best systems such as those found on Singapore or Emirates, Avianca’s programming offered a decent selection of movies, television shows and games – not to mention the excellent and aforementioned Sky Map. I’ve never been a big fan of watching movies on airplanes, mainly because I’m willing to wait to watch them on a bigger and better screen back home. That said, I do enjoy checking out the documentaries and I particularly enjoy playing any and all trivia type games. The games portion of Avianca’s system included the airplane version of the old gameshow “So You Want To be A Millionaire” which allowed me to spend the next hour and a half trying to beat my high score of $250000. I never did but it was a fun way to pass some time, especially given the cloudy conditions out my window.

We were about an hour out of Bogota when the crew came around with a light snack. In Business Class this translated to that old South American staple, the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich. Experience has taught me to accompany my travels with a small Ziploc baggie filled with a variety of extra condiments. That practice served me well today because without a the addition of a couple packets worth of Grey Poupon mustard to spice it all up, this mostly bread sandwich was nothing special.

Avianca’s Ham & Cheese Business Class Snack

A lot of bread and a wee bit of ham & cheese

As we began our descent into Bogota’s Eldorado International Airport, the clouds cover opened up a bit revealing the lush green mountains and valleys below. I took particular notice of one dramatic ridge that clouds had backed up behind. It had an “edge of the world” like quality to it and so I grabbed my camera and fired off a couple of photos.

The edge of the world?

Approach into Bogota

Finally, after a flight of five hours and twenty three minutes, we glided gracefully over the perimeter fence, watched as the runway stripes sped by beneath us and then touched down smoothly on the wide expanse of concrete otherwise known as Runway 13R. The lead flight attendant dispatched us with the usual post-flight folderol though given her less than inspired service in the forward cabin, I couldn’t help but question her sincerity.

Overall however, I had a good time on this, my second flight aboard a 787. As for Avianca, one lackluster flight does not define an airline any more than the occasional cloudy day defines Miami Beach. I’ve got a two hour layover to look forward to here in Bogota and then we’ll give Avianca another try on the short 470 mile flight west to Panama City.

* * * _ * _ * * *

As we were taxiing into our gate, it didn’t take long to notice that this was not the same airport I had flown into the last time I passed through Bogota ten years ago. Gone were the old run down concourses and flotilla of aging Colombian jetliners. In their place was a modern new terminal and lots of shiny Avianca jetliners that appeared to be of fairly recent vintage. To be sure, there were still a few old hulks dotting the tarmac – some of them airworthy and others not – but on the whole this was a new and improved Eldorado International and it was with no small measure of anticipation that I hoisted my pack, grabbed my roll aboard and lurched up the jetway.

Following the signs for transit passengers, I made my way through the security checkpoint and then followed the signs to Avianca’s new Business Class Lounge. An elevator ride delivered me to the Mezzanine level where not one but two Avianca lounges awaited. One lounge appeared to be for passengers traveling on domestic flights while the other was reserved for those traveling in international Business Class. That’d be me thought I as I proceeded to the reception desk on the right.

As Premium Class lounges go, I would rate this one as… OK. On a scale of 1-10 I’d give it a 7.5. Maybe an 8 if I were feeling extraordinarily generous. But I’m not, so 7.5 it is. The seating was comprised of the same hard white molded chairs and tables seen earlier in the Santiago lounge. There were some padded red semi-cubicles sprinkled around the lounge though for the life of me I fail to see the attraction in this style of seating given the hard straight back with minimal cushioning. A television room offered marginally more comfortable seating though it only had a couple dozen seats and you’d be forced to watch either a soccer match or the news. The internet was so-so although the bathrooms and showers appeared squeaky-clean.

Avianca’s Business Class Lounge in Bogota

Alright then, let’s check out the food offerings. Hmm… not bad, not bad – especially compared to what you’d find in a typical U.S. airline lounge. The liquor selection however was downright bleak. Here – see for yourselves…

Avianca’s Business Class Lounge Food

Avianca’s Business Class Lounge Food

Care for a drink?

I put together a small plate of salmon, cheese, salad and bread before searching out a place to sit down. Normally I prefer finding a business center type cubicle but nothing of the type was offered at this facility and so I found a table by the large floor to ceiling windows where I quite enjoyed basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun while watching a seemingly endless parade of Avianca jetliners take to the skies. Perhaps it was the time of day, for though there are a variety of second tier Colombian airlines, Avianca aircraft comprised approximately 80% of the departures at this time of the afternoon.

All too soon it was time to gather my belongings and make my way down to the departure gate for my onward flight to Panama City. Along the way I passed a variety of shops selling high end clothing, jewelry and perfumes. I’ve never understood why it is that people are willing to pay hugely inflated prices at an airport store for items that with a modicum of advance planning they could have purchased in town for considerably less. Cheapskate that I am, the most I’ll generally ever spend in an airport store is about $8.50 for that week’s copy of The Economist. With no magazines or books of any interest to me on Bogota’s newsstands, I strolled blithely on.

Waiting at the gate was a shiny Airbus A319 whose gleaming new Avianca livery belied its thirteen years of prior service on behalf of Mexicana and AeroGal. Though the airplane may have looked shiny and new on the outside, inside the old and worn Business Class seats appeared to be Mexicana’s original issue from waaay back in 2002. That’s alright – they were reasonably comfortable and offered a fairly decent amount of seat pitch. Seatmate didn’t even have to get up as I eased across him and into Seat 2A.

New Business Class on Avianca’s Airbus
Photo courtesy of Avianca

The captain came on over the PA and announced in both Spanish and excellent English that we’d be looking at a flight time of just over an hour to Panama City. The enroute conditions were projected to be smooth so please, sit back, relax and enjoy our fine service on this short flight over to Panama City this afternoon.

Now you would think that a one hour flight would not allow enough time to enjoy a “fine” service unless you considered a second pass with the drink cart to qualify as such. This was certainly my thinking, especially after the mediocre service I’d received on my five hour flight up from Santiago. Imagine then my surprise and delight when shortly after leveling off I was presented with a meal tray bearing a delicious main course of stuffed chicken and rice accompanied by a delectable vegetable salad, a roll and one of the more aesthetically appealing desserts I’ve ever been served aloft.

Avianca’s Business Class Luncheon between Bogota and Panama City

Avianca’s delightful fruit and custard tart

In addition to the superb meal service, it was a spectacular day up in the troposphere with abundant sunshine and warm blue skies accented by lots of puffy little clouds. A quick glance around the cabin revealed that I wasn’t the only one impressed by nature’s beauty outside the airplane. Not a single window shade was drawn, thus bathing the cabin in the warm glow of natural light. As one hour flights go, this one was as nice as it gets. Well done, Avianca!

A great day for flying

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jan 6, 16 at 12:01 am
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Dec 26, 15, 3:26 am
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We parked in the old 1978 built terminal of Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. This was good because most gates on the new North Wing, which is dominated by COPA Airlines, would have resulted in a much longer walk to the main terminal where the COPA Club is located.

Panama City COPA Club

Panama City COPA Club

I set up shop at a cubicle in the Business Center and then headed over to the bar for a nicely chilled Heineken. Judging by the crew at the bar, I could just as easily have been at a pub in most any local barrio. The bartender was not particularly attentive and as for the patrons… well, check ‘em out.

The bar at Panama City’s COPA Club

I find it interesting that airlines go such effort to provide a clean, attractive business casual atmosphere in their lounges. Their employees are always very well turned out in their crisp, clean uniforms – often presenting quite a contrast to a significant number of the patrons, many of whom dress as if they’re going to a trailer park barbecue or an afternoon at the gym. What if the lounges were furnished and operated in a style better suited to decorum more in keeping with that of their users? Like a hippie crash pad, perhaps… or some college dude’s basement apartment.

* * * _ * _ * * *

A glance at the television monitor revealed that my flight to Sao Paulo would be departing 35 minutes late. This was not of great concern given my eleven and a half hour layover in Sao Paulo. Of greater concern was the assigned gate, located waaaay down at the very end of the new concourse. A quick check of the airport terminal map revealed that it was the farthest possible distance that a gate could possibly be located away from the COPA Lounge. After a few muttered curses I gathered up my gear, bid farewell to the pretty receptionist and commenced the long journey down to gate 8.

Along the way I passed a small café selling Chester Fried Chicken. I’ve often seen Chester Fried Chicken being sold at gas station convenience stores throughout the American south. I don’t recall the prices but they never seemed high enough to be noteworthy. Here in Panama City however, a 2 piece chicken and biscuit was selling for the extraordinarily high price of $10.45!

I took my time getting down to the gate, mainly because I didn’t want to work up a sweat enroute. The terminal was air conditioned but per my standards it still felt pretty sticky. As such, rather than walking briskly down the concourse as per my usual gait, one could more properly say that I “moseyed” or “ambled” down the concourse instead.

A good sized crowd was gathered at the gate lounge when I arrived. By all appearances this was going to be a full flight tonight, making me all the more grateful to be in possession of a boarding pass directing me to the spacious accommodations in the Business Class cabin, seat 2F in particular. The aircraft was just being towed into the gate as I arrived, so I continued my mosey on over to the big floor to ceiling windows so that I could enhance this report with a photo of the waiting aircraft.

My plane awaits

When boarding was finally announced, I was appreciative of how orderly the initial process went. Granted, as a Business Class passenger I was amongst the very first to board and yet – despite having commenced my approach to the jetway from a seat some 50 feet away – I encountered surprisingly little resistance to my path. In retrospect it was almost dreamlike in how calm everyone was.

I’ve been looking forward to this flight for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this will be my very first flight aboard COPA Airlines. Flying aboard a new airline is always cause for heightened anticipation, even after having flown 4.8 million miles aboard 176 airlines up until this flight.

Ranking a very close second is my excitement at flying in COPA’s Business Class, especially given the new and considerably more spacious seating that COPA has been installing aboard its long haul 737-800s over the past year. The new Business Class cabins feature leather covered recliners with leg rests and deeper recline while offering a generous 50” pitch between seats. If one must fly 3160 miles in the middle of the night aboard a 737, COPA’s Business Class looks like one of the better ways to do so.

COPA’s 737-800 Business Class cabin

Indeed, I’ll be interested to see how this flight compares against my flight of similar length flown aboard Turkish Airlines’ Business Class a year and a half ago between Istanbul and Kigali, Rwanda. That flight was flown aboard a 737-900ER that featured the most spacious Business Class seating I have ever experienced aboard a 737.

COPA’s long haul configured 737-800s offer 16 seats in Business Class and another 138 behind the curtain. Tonight’s aircraft featured the new Sky Interior and I must say the spacious Business Class cabin looked at once fresh and inviting. At my seat was a pre-packaged blanket and pillow along with Pieter, my seatmate in 2D. He was just wrestling his bag into the overhead compartment and getting ready to sit down as I arrived so my timing couldn’t have been better.

Pieter had lived and worked in Panama City for the past three years and so was a veteran of many COPA flights. Interestingly, he also kept a flight log – a fact he mentioned shortly after we’d settled in when he noticed me jotting down the aircraft’s registration number prior to pushback. We talked logs for a bit and after he showed me my seat’s electric outlet and USB port, I fired up my laptop and showed him some of the latest entries as well as some of my upcoming flights on South African, Safair, Emirates and Alaska. Needless to say his head was spinning upon seeing that as of tonight’s flight I’d logged 5,003 flights covering 4,837,640 miles. Not that I’m one to brag but not many people have flown as much as I have and - on those rare occasions where this becomes a topic with a seatmate or anyone for that matter - I must say I do rather get a kick out of their reaction.

The cavalcade of preflight offerings continued with the presentation of menus and an amenity kit. The latter came wrapped in clear plastic, so rather than open it I placed it in my day pack for future perusal. Alas, to this day it remains unopened but imminently available should I decide to ever bring it along for a short trip. As for the menu, I wasted no time in opening it and checking out tonight’s offerings. Not bad, not bad! But more on that in a moment.

Following a surprisingly long take off roll, we climbed quickly away from the steamy environs of Panama and up into the cool night sky of the troposphere. In the 30-40,000 foot range down at these latitudes the temperature hovers between -30° and -40°F, but inside the cabin we reclined in the comfort of climate controlled technology that maintained a comfortable interior temperature of 68°F.

Service began with a presentation of tepid, damp miniature washcloths. It doesn’t sound nearly so refreshing when the product is described as it really is does it? COPA isn’t the first airline that has failed in its efforts to provide hot towels but what amazes me is how many other airlines also struggle to properly provide this most simple of inflight amenities.

Why is it that airlines like Singapore and Cathay Pacific can consistently provide a proper steaming hot towel service whereas others appear to be so challenged by this most rudimentary of offerings? I chalk it up to a combination of poor training and some flight attendants who simply don’t care enough to ensure that it’s done properly. Add to this the fact that most passengers are unlikely to specifically complain about such a seemingly insignificant aspect of the overall service, and improvement is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Now I realize that most people – including many of you reading this – are not likely to find service shortcomings such as sloppy hot towel presentations worthy of even half the commentary I’ve dedicated to it here. It’s a well-established fact though that attention to detail – doing the “little” things right – is a primary contributor to most any successful enterprise – be it operating a successful business or playing on a winning sports team. Our continued indifference towards these “insignificant” service shortcomings ultimately contribute to the gradual erosion in premium class service standards that from my experience on international flights of this length were generally higher.

More than anything though, the real reason I’ve gone off on this particular tangent is that I actually enjoy a good hot towel service and I’ve enjoyed a lot of them since my first international First Class flight back in 1976. Northwest Orient introduced hot scented Oshibori towels to the skies in the 1950s on its Boeing 377 Stratocruiser flights between the US and Asia. They proved so popular that other airlines adopted the practice and – initially at least – those airlines took the time and effort to provide a proper hot towel service. So call me spoiled but I’ve been experiencing quality inflight service for twenty years before FlyerTalk even came into being and I’m here to tell y’all that properly presented, those Oshibori towels are a nice part of a quality inflight service.

But enough towel talk! It’s time for dinner. Per COPA’s website, the Business Class meal service is said to include “the best wines and liquors as well as exquisite gastronomical selections prepared by exclusive chefs”. Exquisite gastronomical selections?! Prepared by exclusive chefs no less?! Stop it! You’re making me hungry! Take a moment if you like to refresh your drink and when you get back we’ll check out tonight’s menu…

Panama City to Sao Paulo

To Begin
Roasted nuts served with your preferred beverage or cocktail

Cream of Broccoli

Green salad offered with your choice of dressing

From The Bakery
An assortment of freshly baked rolls with butter


Grilled Salmon

Accompanied by basmati rice and creamed spinach

Fettuccine with Grilled Chicken
Accompanied with Pomodoro sauce


Chocolate and Orange Cheesecake
Vanilla Ice Cream offered with your choice of topping

Offered prior to arrival in Sao Paulo

Cold Cuts Platter

Both Pieter and I chose the Fettuccine with Grilled Chicken. We also said yes, please to both the soup and the salad.

The soup arrived first. What it lacked in presentation (a little bit of soylent green substance in a bowl) it more than made up for in flavor. As cream of broccoli soups go, it really was quite tasty! All it was lacking was a few croutons. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the salad. For starters, the portion was pretty meagre – a few sparse pieces of greens highlighted by a half cob of baby corn – and all of it was doused in mediocre vinaigrette.

COPA’s Soup & Salad over Panama

The Grilled Chicken on Fettuccine was pretty good though neither Pieter nor myself could discern what exactly “Pomodoro Sauce” was, Perhaps it was the red marinara type sauce barely visible in the lower right corner of the plate. The portion was so small that we were both surprised it even warranted mention in the menu description. Thankfully the noodles were moist and buttery and a few sprinkles of salt were all it took to make this dish more palatable.

COPA’s Grilled Chicken on Fettuccine
Is that red substance the Pomodoro Sauce?

Neither of us felt up for dessert. With a projected flight time of just six hours and forty minutes - and with just over five hours left in the flight – it was important to get as much sleep as possible. As such we traded in our meal trays for blankets and pillows and tried to make ourselves as comfortable as the limited recline would allow. It didn’t help that COPA’s new recliners are pretty hard as premium class seats go. Thankfully the blankets were fairly decent. Normally I prefer an aisle seat but if I must fly all night in a seat that doesn’t fully recline, I find I sleep better with a wall to lean into. And – with the help of a good book, half a melatonin and a quarter tab of Ambien I did just that, knocking off a good four hours before being awoken as we were well into our descent into São Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport.

Overall, I thought COPA provided a decent service by today’s Business Class standards – especially one being operated exclusively aboard narrow bodied aircraft. The main meal was presented in a timely fashion and in both quality and quantity was quite sufficient. The service was pleasant and though the seats felt a bit harder than I’d like, I did manage to sleep pretty well in them, albeit with chemical assistance. So - in consideration of all of these things, would I fly COPA’s Business Class again? Yes.


Faced with an eleven and a half hour layover and operating on just four hours of airline seat sleep, I entertained exactly zero thoughts of going out and exploring hot and humid São Paulo. Back in my 20s and 30s I could’ve gotten by on four hours of sleep but not anymore. I still needed a proper rest, especially with an early evening trans-Atlantic flight aboard South African Airways’ A340-300 to look forward to. I wanted to be at my best in order to fully enjoy both the new Star Alliance Lounge at Guarulhos as well as SAA’s highly regarded Business Class service.

As I investigated the airport area hotel options in the days leading up to my arrival in São Paulo, I found a number of very affordable hotels located in the nearby Guarulhos suburbs and was ready to book with one of them when I stumbled across a place called Slaveiro Fast Sleep. Located airside in the airport terminal, it offered small compact rooms similar to what you’d find aboard a ship or train. Each room was fully air-conditioned and contained a bunk bed along with a small television and internet access.

My humble accommodations at the Slaveiro Fast Sleep

Bathrooms and showers were located just down the hall. Best of all however was that by staying here there’d be no need to deal with long lines at Immigration and Customs, nor would I have to wait for a hotel shuttle going and coming. For a guy that just wanted to get a bit of undisturbed sleep, this was perfect.

Ten minutes after stepping off my COPA flight, I’d walked down to the Slaveiro Fast Sleep where I paid out $65.00 USD for 8 hours of room occupancy. Five minutes after that I was laying down on my comfortable bunk and settling in for another six hours of quality sleep. By 2:00pm I was showered and on my way over to the Star Alliance Lounge for a bit of food, drink and relaxation before my flight.

* * * _ * _ * * *

Upon leaving the Slaveiro, to say that I was simply “on my way” over to the Star Alliance Lounge does not paint an accurate picture of just how long a journey this actually is. The Slaveiro Fast Sleep is located in old Terminal 1 while the Star Alliance Lounge is located in the new Terminal 3. I would estimate the distance at about half a mile - nothing for the average morning jogger but inside a building with so-so air-conditioning, wearing a 15 pound daypack and trailing a roll-a-board with a sore back and an uneven gait, it was quite a long walk.

Hikes such as this are not unheard of in some of the world’s larger airports. Last year I arrived on the C Concourse of Bangkok International only to be informed at the East Transit Desk that my onward flight to Ho Chi Minh City was departing from gate F-6 on the opposite side of the airport. Additionally, I would need to collect my boarding pass at the West Transit Desk, also located on the opposite side of the airport. Getting there would require me to walk across the world's fourth largest single-building airport terminal (563,000 square meters or 6,060,000 square feet). According to a sign posted above the terminal walkway, the West Transit Desk was located just 850 meters away. 850 meters! That translates to just over half a mile and this wasn’t even including the 200 meter walk from my gate at C8 to the top of the concourse in addition to another 200 some odd meters down to my gate at F6. People movers were available on the C and F concourses, but not the long crossover D Concourse. All told, I reckon I probably limped about three quarters of a mile. This afternoon’s journey across São Paulo’s airport was of similar distance.

It was interesting to note the transition from old to new during my trek across the airport. Terminal 1 airside was by no means the poor or rundown facility alluded to on many airport review sites though it did have a distinct 1980s feel about it.

One positive along the way was a good looking 737-300 I saw parked between terminals 1 and 2. It was wearing the attractive new livery of Boliviana de Aviacion and so I stopped briefly to admire it and fire off a couple of photos. A subsequent check of this airplane’s heritage revealed that I had flown on it twenty-six years earlier when it had worn the orange, blue and red stripe of United Airlines.

Boliviana de Aviacion 737-300

My journey took me from one lengthy corridor to another and then another and then yet another but after all that I must say that the long walk over to São Paulo’s gleaming new Terminal 3 was well worth the shoe leather. A harp glissando and a chorus from the heavens would have been appropriate as I emerged from an elevator into the high, wide and handsome environs of the new terminal.

Wow! My first impression was of how bright and spacious the new terminal was. This is a world class facility modelled after the best terminals seen in the newer airports across Asia and Europe. The ceiling was a good three or four stories high with the upper two stories comprising a wall of windows that allowed an abundance of natural light to illuminate the terminal. The lower floor and Mezzanine are populated with dozens of good looking shops, bars and restaurants as well as an attractive collection of high-end shops in an area called “GRU Avenue.” I stopped in a Hudson News outlet to buy a couple of postcards and was surprised at the collection of English language books and magazines available for sale. Continuing my meander to the Star Alliance Lounge, I briefly considered stopping in for a drink at what surely must be the southernmost franchise of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. It was doing brisk business while enlivening the surrounding area with happy strains from the Coral Reefers Band. Still, I was really looking forward checking out the new Star Alliance Lounge and so followed the signs to the Mezzanine Level where the airline lounges were located.

São Paulo’s Terminal 3 atrium as seen from the Mezzanine Level

Designed to replace the old United Club - which was often described with adjectives like “dreary” and” dismal” - the new Star Alliance Lounge opened in July 2014 to much fanfare and – according to the receptionists – continues to be an ongoing sensation.

My first thought upon entering this lounge was how perfectly inviting it looked. And I do mean perfect as it relates to my perception of what constitutes inviting. I was immediately taken by how nicely the natural light flowing in from the terminal windows combined favorably with the warm glow from multiple lamps set throughout the seating areas. And what an attractive layout! Small clusters of warmly upholstered couches and chairs crafted from native Brazilian materials looked cozy and inviting set amidst an assortment of well-placed potted plants and palms. Each little grouping seemed to have its own unique appeal. Warm brown wooden floors were complimented by the use of carpeting in the central seating areas. A clear glass wall made up the perimeter of the lounge. The seating areas alongside it overlooked the colorful shops and restaurants in the terminal atrium below with some of them providing excellent views of the tarmac and airport grounds beyond.

São Paulo’s Star Alliance Lounge

After dropping my bags at a small group of seats overlooking the shops below, I sauntered over to the café area where a nice selection of coffees and teas were available. A bank of refrigerators was stocked with a variety of juices, soda, international beers and three different white wines. A nearby self-serve bar included a couple more red wines as well as a basic collection of everyday spirits and liqueurs.

Perhaps it was the tray of brightly colored full-sized coffee cups that caught my eye, but that was enough to sway me from the cold beer I’d been anticipating to a cup of good hot Brazilian coffee instead. A large buffet island provided an attractive bounty of sandwiches, soups, salads and pastries. I selected a half sandwich and a small pastry before returning to my little alcove to bask in the splendor of this lounge.

Buffet Area

Buffet Area

Complimentary wi-fi access is provided throughout the lounge in addition to a dedicated business center providing all the usual accoutrements typically found in such facilities. A visit to the restrooms revealed four well-appointed shower suites available to those looking to freshen up. I was tempted after my long walk across the airport but the lounge was nicely air-conditioned and t wasn’t long before I once again felt cool and dry.

Overall São Paulo’s new Star Alliance lounge provided a relaxing and welcoming atmosphere while promoting a very Brazilian look and feel. I’ve been in a lot of great airline lounges over the years and while this one was nowhere near as large, opulent or diverse in its offerings as some, on ambience alone it will remain one of my all-time favorites.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Dec 29, 15 at 8:35 pm
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Dec 26, 15, 3:28 am
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April 21, 2015
South African Airways São Paulo to Johannesburg 600p – 745a A340-300 Business Class

Despite the fact that I’ve logged over 5000 flights and 11,200 hours aboard 178 different airlines, I still get a thrill over the prospect of a long international flight in Premium Class. Even when I was no more than 5 or 6 years old I knew where I wanted to sit. It’s interesting because most everybody assumes that a kid with an interest in commercial aviation would want to grow up to become a pilot. Not me. I never even had any real desire to see the cockpit. Rather, I wanted to check out the First Class cabin, sit in those big seats and feast on all that glorious airline food served fresh from the trolley.

By the time I was 12 years old I’d flown a total of 15 flights aboard five airlines. Our family never flew First Class but I was always aware that the people sat up there appeared to be enjoying a much nicer flight. Not that I had any complaints with Coach, mind you. Back in those days the Coach services offered on many U.S. airlines was better than what passes for domestic First Class today – even on transcons. I was still young and inexperienced enough that any flight - regardless of class – was a huge thrill, often accompanied by such anticipation that sleep would be difficult to come by in the days leading up to our departure.

Keep in mind that I grew up when air travel – especially by jet – was still a novelty. Most of us back then considered a flight on a jet plane to be a special event. Indeed, traveling anywhere by public conveyance was considered to be pretty special – special enough that most people of all ages dressed accordingly in their best travel clothes. We always dressed up to go out to dinner at nice restaurants and sometimes even to go certain big city movie theaters, some of which were a much nicer and more ornate than the soulless multiplex boxes that pass as theaters today.

It was a great time to be alive. I’m very thankful that I was around to experience that era when a lot of things we take for granted today such as air travel really were new and different or in the case of a nice restaurant or classic old movie house held in such high regard that we honored the experience by striving to look our best when we participated.

As a kid I was as casual as any other kid of the day - my usual “uniform” being a pair of old jeans and a t-shirt as I climbed trees, built forts in the forest or tore around the fields surrounding our house on my bike. That said, I never considered it an imposition to throw on a jacket and tie to go out and fly. If anything, it lent a formality to the occasion that made it that much cooler.

These days, I still dress the part, especially in consideration of the stylish and classy premium class products that most good airlines deliver. They’ve invested substantial amounts of both time and money to provide us with stylish and well-appointed lounges, serve us with well trained and fashionably attired employees and fly us in elegant, comfortable premium class cabins. I personally like to honor their efforts and their product by dressing accordingly. But that’s just me. If you choose to show up in shorts and sandals, that’s your choice! I’d still be happy to join you at the bar for a beer or two while talking shop over your travels and mine.

* * * _ _ _ * * *

It was a little before 5:00pm when I gathered my gear and headed down to the departure gate. On my way out I stopped by a wall display where a nice assortment of local and international newspapers was available. I selected a copy of the International Herald Tribune – now called the International New York Times – and commenced the long journey down to gate 47, located at the very end of the concourse. As with my departure gate in Panama City, this gate was the farthest distance one could possibly walk from the lounge without actually leaving Terminal 3. It almost seems as if the Air Travel Gods – in consideration of all the sitting I’m doing aboard airplanes and in lounges of late – have conspired to see that I get as much exercise as possible, if only by making me walk long distances through all the airports enroute. I took a small measure of relief at being assisted down the considerable length of the concourse by eight people mover walkways.

São Paulo’s Terminal 3

When I was about 13-14 years old I’d occasionally ride my bicycle 12 miles out to Denver’s Stapleton International Airport. Once there I’d chain my bike to a pole and then head into the terminal for a few hours of fun roaming the concourses and pestering the ticket agents for things like timetables, ticket jackets and old OAGs. Down on the concourses I’d watch with envy as lucky passengers boarded aircraft such as North Central DC-9-30s, Western 720Bs and Braniff International 727s bound for the heavens. As each airplane taxied away from the gate I could easily envision myself someday boarding that very same plane, settling into a plush comfortable seat and enjoying the fabulous inflight service while headed off to exotic locales such as Minneapolis, San Diego or Oklahoma City.

Fast forward to the present and I still enjoy arriving at the gate a few minutes early to meet the airplane I’ll soon be flying upon. Granted, after 5000 some odd flights covering 4.9 million miles, I won’t come down early for just any old 737 but when flying aboard a new airline, a new airplane or on a long international flight my anticipation is such that, like an excited child on Christmas Eve, I just can’t resist a peek at the presents under the tree. As you might imagine this activity is all the more exciting when I’m in possession of a boarding pass entitling me to a seat in First Class.

One reason for a little pre-flight anticipation is that I’ve logged very few flights aboard Airbus’ A330 and A340 family of jetliners. Indeed, this would be only my fifth flight aboard the A340-300 – the others having come aboard models from Cathay Pacific and Philippine Airlines. I did once fly aboard an SAA A340-600 on a short flight between Cape Town and Johannesburg but it was in Economy Class. The scarcity of previous flights and the fact that tonight’s flight would see me traveling in SAA’s award winning Business Class combined to make this a flight that I’ve been looking forward to more so than most.

Waiting at the gate this evening was an 18 year old Airbus Industries A340-313X that was delivered new to the Spanish carrier Iberia as EC-GQK in 1997. Retired from service in 2009 and traded in to Airbus, the plane sat in storage for a year at Châteauroux in central France until SAA showed up a year later, kicked the tires and decided to see how many more flights the old girl still had left in her. Airbus was only too happy to offer a sweet deal on a multi-year lease. Now re-registered as ZS-SXH, she looked quite fetching in South African’s clean, attractive livery – poised and ready for her 4,620 mile flight across the South Atlantic.

South African’s A340-300 awaits its trans-Atlantic departure at GRU

Another reason that I’ve really been looking forward to this flight is that it will contribute to greater symmetry on my map of international routes flown. That big open space across the South Atlantic Ocean between South America and South Africa has long beckoned to me and as you can see from the map pictured below, at present it stands out like a missing tooth. I always knew I’d find my way across it someday and to be doing so aboard a quality Business Class like SAA’s while departing at sunset – well, I could hardly ask for a better scenario.

International Routes Flown prior to this trip

And finally, the ultimate reason why I’ve been looking forward to this flight is that South African Airways’ award winning Business Class has been consistently ranked as the highest rated Business Class product in Africa by a variety of air travel organizations. SAA has been awarded Skytrax’s prestigious 4-Star rating as well as "Best Airline in Africa" for thirteen straight years – the only airline in Africa to be so honored. Other 4-Star airlines include Lufthansa, Emirates, Qantas, Turkish and Swiss to name just a few, so SAA is in good company. SAA was also honored with the award for "Best Airline Staff in Africa" for the fourth time. The awards for "Best Airline Staff" are special and coveted accolades, as they represent the combined quality performance of an airline's front-line staff, including the on-board cabin crew and airport customer service staff.

Keep in mind we’re not talking about an award from readers of Travel & Holiday magazine here. The Skytrax World Airline Awards, held each year at either the Paris or Farnborough Air Show, carry considerable gravitas and are described as "The Oscars of the aviation industry". They are the result of the world’s largest airline passenger satisfaction survey and involve thousands of travelers from around the world.

Boarding commenced at 5:25pm with a call for Business Class passengers followed by multiple levels of garden variety elite flyers from SAA’s Voyagers frequent flyer program. Two flight attendants were on duty at the door where I was warmly greeted and my boarding pass inspected before I was directed to cross over to the far side of the airplane where I’d find my seat at 2K.

South African Airways’ A340 Business Class cabin
Photo courtesy of South African Airways

South African Airways’ A340 Business Class cabin

My seat awaits

By modern day standards, the Business Class cabin on this A340 might be considered old and frumpy. But, like the seats often found in a classic old car, these seats were large and well-padded and - best of all – they reclined to a full 180°. True, their 2-2-2 configuration meant that passengers seated by the windows would not have direct aisle access, but this I consider a small price to pay for what has to be one of the more comfortable and spacious premium class seats I’ve ever sat in and I’ve sat in quite a few.

Seat pitch is 73” so even when the seat isn’t fully reclined, there’s a wonderful sense of spaciousness about you that the more modern pod type seats can never come close to offering. The only other Business Class seat I’ve sat in that’s in the same range as SAA’s for outright seating comfort is the one offered aboard Singapore Airlines’ internationally configured 777-300s – at least as they were configured in November of 2013. United’s old cradle seats employed in the late 90s and early 2000s aboard its 747s and 777s are also worthy of mention.

Settling in for the flight, I took a few moments to take stock of my surroundings for the next nine hours. A large pillow, a bottle of water and the menu for tonight’s flight had already been placed at each seat prior to boarding. A steward soon appeared to relieve me of my jacket only to return moments later with a tray bearing Champagne, mango and orange juice. Why, a glass of Champagne would be just marvelous, thanks!

A Champagne Welcome

Amenity kits were delivered next. South African’s are presented in a stylish quilted leather bag. An inspection of the contents revealed the usual items typically found in any amenity kit. Of particular interest to me was the Calming Skin Balm. I don’t recall having ever been suffused with a sense of calm and serenity after applying skin balm. Hmm… Right – well, back into the bag with that and on to another glass of this delicious Champagne!

SAA’s Amenity Kit

SAA’s Amenity Kit Contents

Newspapers and magazines made the rounds and I selected copies of both The Star and The Mail & Guardian. Normally I’d stick to The Mail & Guardian – far and away the best quality news reporting in South Africa – but The Star had a headline that grabbed my attention: Rental Car Hijackings Increase. Just what I need to read as I’ll be picking up a rental car in Cape Town tomorrow…

Thanks to a fairly light load up front tonight, I had the luxury of an empty seat next to me. Oh goody! Now I can spread out and even relocate to the window seat without having to worry about bothering anyone if I need to get up during the flight. I’m starting to get the feeling that this is going to be a really nice flight…

* * * _ * _ * * *

So then, here I am comfortably ensconced in seat 2K sipping from a glass of deliciously chilled Champagne whilst awaiting the delights intrinsic to a premium class service aboard an airline long renowned for the quality of its inflight service. My favorite part of that service is of course the meal and SAA is known to offer a superior premium class meal service highlighted by some of South Africa’s finest wines.

Let’s have a look at tonight’s menu, shall we?

Sao Paulo to Johannesburg

To Begin
A selection of canapés will be served with your cocktail

Shrimp Salad with sliced mango and marinated heart of palm

Tomato Soup with shaved Parmesan Cheese

Seasonal Salad
Offered with a choice of creamy gorgonzola dressing or balsamic vinaigrette dressing

Bread Basket
Filled with an assortment of warm fresh breads, served with butter


Grilled Filet Mignon

Served with herb roasted potatoes, sautéed green beans, turned carrots, oven roasted tomatoes and green pepper and tomato vinaigrette

Grilled Chicken Breast
Accompanied by mashed potato with mustard, blanched chard, grilled asparagus, julienne sundried tomato and rosemary sauce

Pan-Seared Swordfish
With steamed rice, sautéed carrot sticks, snow peas and curried coconut sauce

Penne Pasta
With baked aubergine, roasted tomato sauce and buffalo mozzarella

* * * * * * * * *

Cheese Plate
A selection of fine cheeses featuring Camembert, Gorgonzola and Cheddar Cheese presented with bread and preserves. Served with South African Cape Tawny

Lime Cheese Cake
Dark Chocolate Mousse

Coffee or Tea
After Dinner Chocolates

A light rain had begun to fall as the last of the pre-flight paperwork was completed, the door was closed and the jetway was retracted. Pre-flight safety demonstrations were dispensed with and we experienced that first welcome nudge as the tractor slowly pushed us back and away from the gate. As we made our way out to the runway, Euan, the excellent steward working my side of the cabin, stopped by to inquire as to my drink choice once we were airborne. Hmm… let’s have a quick look at the beverage selections…



Taittinger Brut Reserve Non-Vintage

White Wines
Rijk’s Touch of Oak Chenin Blanc 2012
Alvi’s Drift Signature Viognier 2014

Red Wines
Hartenberg Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Radford Dale Black Rock 2012

Dessert Wine
KWV Classic Cape Tawny

There’ll be plenty of time to check out some of those fine looking wines but for now let’s start with a glass of Bell’s, a blended Scotch whisky that I’d seen often around South Africa but as yet had never tasted. What better time for my first sampling than now, enroute to South Africa aboard its national airline while seated in the premium cabin at the cocktail hour. Let’s get this bird up in the air!

After a long taxi down to the far end of the airport our big Airbus turned into the prevailing breeze, the four CFM56s spooled up to their upper range, the captain released the brakes and we were off; rumbling down the runway at ever increasing speed until finally sufficient velocity was attained to defeat the twin forces of drag and gravity. The nose lifted skyward, the pavement slipped below and behind, the lush greenery of the Brazilian landscape disappeared beneath our wings and in seconds we were accelerating up and out over the deep blue Atlantic. Piercing the layer of slate gray rain clouds, we swiftly broke into the serene blue world of the lower troposphere – what I like to call the soft blue yonder…

* * * _ * _ * * *

This is one of my favorite times of the flight as the captain throttles back a bit from the initial takeoff thrust and the roar from the engines diminishes to a more pleasing tone. I reclined my seat a bit and watched with reverence as our 18 year old flying machine climbed effortlessly ever higher into the heavens. At this hour of day with the sun setting behind us, the sky ahead had a soft bluish-grey hue to it that contrasted nicely with the soft warm light that permeated the forward cabin. From the galley came the sounds of glass and cutlery as the crew began preparing our drinks and setting up for the dinner service soon to follow. The overwhelming sense here is one of pleasant anticipation…

My drink arrived with a small plate of canapés – a most welcome and pleasant addition to any cocktail service and one that from my experience is rarely offered on most Business Class services. Their various flavors complemented the musty essence of the whisky quite nicely and I quickly polished them off before requesting a second plate which was quickly delivered.

A great time to consider the menu

Drink with canapés

The Wine List – White Wines

Shortly thereafter Euan stopped by to inquire as to my selections from tonight’s menu. Well now, after a thorough perusal of the many delicious sounding choices, I informed him that I’d like to start with a bowl of the tomato soup with Parmesan cheese. That cheese sure sounds like a nice addition! I believe I’ll follow that with the shrimp salad appetizer. Now then, for the main course I think I’ll go with the Grilled Filet Mignon - medium rare, thanks. Oh – and for my salad, the creamy gorgonzola dressing, please.

Linens were soon laid, after which a tray was delivered bearing my soup and salad. I traded out my empty glass of Scotch for a nicely chilled glass of the Alvi’s Drift Signature Viognier, which Euan helpfully described as a “red wine drinker’s white”. It was a delicious accompaniment to both the tomato soup and the shrimp appetizer, the latter paired nicely with ripe, sliced mango that was as flavorful as it was colorful.

Tomato Soup starter

Shrimp Salad with sliced mango and marinated heart of palm

With the exception of the soup and the shrimp having been presented on a tray, in every other respect this service was very much like what I would have expected in a proper international First Class. That was a good sized bowl of soup I was served and the shrimp appetizer was also quite substantial and very nicely plated. Euan did a great job of describing the available wines and had no problem selling me on the Hartenberg Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany my main course.

And what a good looking main course it was! The steak was good sized by airline standards - about 6-7 oz. or 170-200 grams – and attractively plated with generous portions of the accompanying vegetables. I particularly enjoyed the green beans which had been sautéed in something quite tasty. Although the filet was on the medium side of medium rare, it was still juicy and flavorful. Throughout each bite the Cab demonstrated amply why it had won the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Varietals (under £15) at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards.

If there were any downside to all this it’s that I was so impressed by the steak in both presentation and taste that I completely forgot to photograph it. I believe that’s a first for me when it comes to trip report photography and I can only hope that you’ll be able to find it in your hearts and stomachs to forgive me this unthinkable transgression.

It’s a good thing I limited my snacking at São Paulo’s Star Alliance Lounge because the dessert and cheese were still yet to come and at this point everything had been so good that I’d hate to have missed any part of the service. My camera sat ready at my side.

Plates and trays were cleared while I savored yet another glass of the delicious cabernet. During the meal I’d been watching what I consider to be Stephen King’s finest movie – The Crankshaft Reduction. SAA’s inflight entertainment system, while not in the same class as those offered on the best Asian and Middle Eastern carriers, still provided an impressive library of films both old and new to entertain us with. With the seat next to me empty, I used its screen to display the sky map and keep track of our progress.

For dessert I chose the Lime Cheese Cake. The whipped cream appeared to have suffered somewhat in transit, thus detracting from the presentation of this dish. However, what was lost in appearance was more than made up for in flavor. The accompanying mango slices paired nicely with the tangy lime flavored filling of the cheesecake.

Lime Cheese Cake with Mango

I brought this repast to a close with a good looking plate of Camembert, Gorgonzola and Cheddar cheese presented with sliced French bread, a fig and some crudités. To accompany this I requested a small serving of the tawny port. Euan returned with an entire glassful and assured me that I’d enjoy every bit of it. Now I’d hardly call myself a wine connoisseur but over the years I’ve had the good fortune to be served some very nice wines both on the ground and in the air. Veteran readers of my reports may recall how impressed I was with the Warre’s 1986 Reserve Tawny Port that British Airways was serving its First Class patrons back around the turn of the century. That was a marvelously nutty and complex port that remains the standard by which I compare all others. The KWV Classic Cape Tawny I was served tonight was perhaps the second tastiest port I’ve ever been served aloft.

A nice ending to the meal

Plates were cleared and I politely declined Euan’s offer of a refill on the port. Had this been a longer flight I would have surely indulged but at this point we were a little more than two hours into the flight and - with just six and a half more hours to go - I had to start giving serious consideration to getting some sleep. I had a long day planned for tomorrow, starting with waking up in time for the breakfast service. After that, I had a connecting flight down to Cape Town followed by a 120 mile drive over to Bredasdorp. As such I requested that my seat be prepared for sleeping while I repaired to the lav to brush my teeth.

I returned to find the outer half of my seat pair nicely laid out with a soft white duvet and a large plump pillow. Atop the seat cushions a thin mattress had been placed for extra comfort. I really prefer the openness of this seat in its bedtime configuration as opposed to being surrounded by the plastic walls of a seat pod while having my feet and lower legs wedged into a narrow compartment. As for the bed, at 21” wide and 74” long, it provided plenty of room to stretch out without feeling walled in. A bottle of water had been thoughtfully placed on the center console. As we sped onward through the inky black skies over the South Atlantic, I read for a half hour or so before finally dropping off into a comfortable sleep.

South African Airways Business Class Bed

Was it my excitement at returning to South Africa that woke me from my slumber or was it the delicious aroma of breakfast foods wafting through the cabin? Whatever it was, adrenaline quickly kicked in and I was soon on my way to the lav to freshen up and get ready for the day ahead.

In my absence the ever vigilant cabin crew set to returning my seat to its daytime configuration and so when I returned I had not only a ready seat but also a breakfast menu awaiting my perusal on the center console. A quick peek out my window revealed a beautiful day in the troposphere though thick cloud cover obscured any views of the land below. The Sky Map revealed we were cruising high over central Namibia, soon to cross over into Botswanan airspace. An hour and seventeen minutes remained in the flight.

Euan appeared seat side to bid me good morning and inquire as to my breakfast choices. Oh! I’m sorry, I hadn’t actually gotten around to checking the menu yet! Euan offered to get me started with coffee and juice while I did just that…


To Begin

Selected Fruit Juices
Sliced Fresh Fruit
Natural or Fruit Flavored Yogurt

Muesli or Cornflakes


Cheese Omelette

Served with grilled ham, roasted tomatoes with herbs, sautéed button mushrooms and roasted potatoes

Continental Breakfast
A selection of cold meats and cheeses

Served with apple compote and whipped cream

Bread Basket
Filled with an assortment of warm fresh breads and pastries, served with butter and preserves

Some services are so good you can’t help but want to savor every bit of them. While at home I’m usually content with limiting breakfast to a large cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal, when inflight aboard an airline of SAA’s caliber I want to try it all. Within reason, of course. As such, I requested the entire continental breakfast starter set with muesli rather than cornflakes. As for the main course, that cheese omelet sure sounds good. Euan concurred and soon returned with a tray bearing a colorful collection of my continental breakfast starters. Wow! Now that is a fruit plate worthy of an international First Class service! I enhanced it with a drizzle of lime juice and got started. Oh yeah!

Continental Breakfast Starter

My first set of dishes was removed and the next course was delivered. Ah… now that’s a good looking plate of food! The omelet was decently sized with nice portions of the accompanying vegetables. As much as I love breakfast potatoes in their many styles, I do wish we’d see more broiled tomatoes and mushrooms back home in America. As it is I generally only get to enjoy them overseas and most commonly onboard airplanes. Today’s serving was delicious as always.

Cheese Omelette
With grilled ham, roasted tomatoes with herbs, sautéed button mushrooms and roasted potatoes

All too soon the pressure change in my ears alerted me to the fact that we’d commenced our descent into Johannesburg. Plates were efficiently cleared, tray tables stowed and carry-on items repacked and returned to their storage spots. Out my windows I watched as we descended through multiple strata of morning clouds…

Descent into Johannesburg

Our wheels kissed the concrete of Runway 03R at 7:50am local time. A quick glance at my watch indicated it had been just over eight and a half hours since we’d departed São Paulo. In the interim I’d enjoyed a quality dinner and a movie, knocked off five hours of restful sleep and awoken to a full hot breakfast service that rivaled First Class on some airlines. Frankly, I’d like to stick around and see what’s for lunch.

Some flights you just wish would last longer. This was certainly one of them. Well done, SAA!

April 22, 2015
South African Airways Johannesburg to Cape Town 1100a – 110p A330-200 Business Class

From my experience, the hardest part of clearing South African Customs and Immigration at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport is the brief wait in line I’ve had to endure before explaining the purpose of my visit to the Immigration officer. Upon receiving the perfunctory passport stamp, it’s always been a nonstop stroll to the arrivals hall. I don’t recall even having ever had my baggage x-rayed.

Over the years I’ve developed a routine for Johannesburg arrivals that works quite well for me. First, I stop by a nearby bank of ATMs to withdraw a couple hundred dollars’ worth of colorful South African Rand. Then I head next door to the airport post office to purchase stamps for the obligatory postcards that will be sent to those less fortunate than I when it comes to their ability to travel. Finally, it’s off to the SAA Arrivals Lounge, conveniently located just down the hall. Awaiting me there is a small but blissfully air-conditioned facility that provides an invigorating shower, a hot cup of coffee and a variety of light refreshments.

Refreshed and ready to take on the day, I’d normally relocate from the Arrivals Lounge to the much larger and nicer Baobab Business Class Lounge. Unfortunately that lounge was undergoing renovation and the temporary facility we were being directed to was not convenient to my departure gate. As such I languished in the Arrivals Lounge until an hour before my scheduled 11:00am departure, at which time I headed out to clear security and check out the A330 that would be flying me down to Cape Town.

It’s a good thing I left the Arrivals Lounge a bit early because I was unaware that the gate assigned to my flight was the one serving remotely parked aircraft. I remember thinking it a bit odd that I had to go downstairs. By the time I arrived they were just beginning to load the busses that would take us out to the plane.

Following a scenic ride past a collection of South African domestic airliners that included colorful examples from Kulula (green) and Mango (bright orange), our bus pulled up to the waiting Airbus and passengers surged toward the mobile stairway. For most of them this was just another flight aboard a big airplane. For a very few others – like me – it was a flight aboard a South African Airways A330-243, a relatively young example of this model that was just entering its fourth year with SAA.

Of the 5,005 flights I’ve logged so far, only five have come aboard A330s via flights with Air Canada, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Thai. To be sure, only an airplane geek like me would even be aware of such facts but this is the kind of stuff that makes flying fun for me and boring for others. I mean – this isn’t just another nameless A330. Because this is my first flight aboard SAA’s version of the A330, this is essentially a “new” plane for me. I can’t help but wonder what it looks like inside. How much different Is the Business Class cabin going to be from the A340 that I just came in on? What color is the carpet? What color are the seats? I know, I know what you’re thinking. Still, I am unrepentant. This is exciting stuff!

All my questions were answered shortly after I’d settled into my window seat at 2K. Aside from a slightly smaller forward cabin, the Business Class section of this A330 features the same beige upholstered seats and international standard seat pitch as the A340 that I’d just come in on. A flight attendant stopped by with a tray of orange juice and water, then returned moments later to hang my jacket.

Pushback was right on time and thirty minutes later we were leveling out at thirty some odd thousand feet, cruising along at 900 km/h under bright sunny skies. Once again the seat next to me remained empty, so I took advantage of the extra space to spread out with today’s newspaper, my camera and daypack occupying the open seat. Unfortunately the electric outlet mounted in my seat didn’t work. Nor did the one in the empty seats behind me. When I brought this to the attention of the flight attendant I was informed that the problem had been noted off the inbound flight but that repairs were not possible during the aircraft’s short layover in JNB. Right. Well then, let’s see what’s for lunch.

Part of the anticipation process for trips like this involves researching product reviews on sites like airlinequality.com and FlyerTalk. Most of the Business Class reviews I came across reported on long haul flights, but of the few I found covering domestic services, I got the impression that a 760 mile one hour and fifty minute flight would feature a decent meal.

Unfortunately, it would seem that our 11:00am departure meant that this flight was catered as a snack rather than a proper luncheon. As a result I was presented a small tray bearing a fruit starter and a cold potato cake topped with a folded over slice of roast beef. Three cherry tomato halves added color but did little to detract from the notion that I’d just been presented an appetizer.

SAA Business Class Snack Service JNB-CPT

Oh well. It tasted alright if a bit dry, though thankfully I was able to remedy that with the addition of some Grey Poupon mustard of which I had several packets stashed in my daypack.

Descent into Cape Town was routine and, following a smooth landing (I suspect most landings feel “smooth” from the perspective of a seat up in the front of the airplane…) we taxied over to a remote stand and boarded busses that delivered us to the terminal.

Outside the terminal building, I found a complimentary golf cart service that delivered me straight to the Rental Car “Center”. I use the quotation marks in jest of course as the reality of Cape Town’s rental car facility is a low single story building housing a row of kiosks representing seven or eight companies. I had booked my car over the internet a few weeks ago and encountered no problems in procuring a silver Volkswagon Polo with automatic transmission and 25000 miles on it. Minutes later I was speeding east along the N2, bound for the little town of Bredasdorp and a week of adventure along the beautiful Garden Coast.
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Old Dec 26, 15, 3:33 am
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As a concession to those of you who prefer scrolling through a bunch of pictures as opposed to pouring through pages of tedious prose, I’ll present the land portion of my South African travels in photo report format. I started off by picking up a rental car and driving from Cape Town to the small town of Bredasdorp for the night.

Taking a break on the road to Bredasdorp

Colorful church seen enroute to Bredasdorp

My humble $24.00/night accommodations in Bredasdorp

Accommodations in Bredasdorp

My rental car and feline friend

From Bredasdorp I headed down to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa and as such the place where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. It was a beautiful day for a drive…

Welcome to Cape Agulhas

The Cape Agulhas Lighthouse

Read All About It!

Cape Agulhas

A little farther up the coast I stopped to take a brief stroll along a beautiful beach…

Far South African Beach

A nice day for a walk on the beach

Next I headed north to Swellendam, home to several fine wineries and a beautiful place to stop for lunch and a glass of cabernet…

Heading north to Swellendam


From Swellendam it was on to Mossel Bay where I had a room booked in a railroad car at the unique Santos Express Train Hotel. While most visitors to Mossel Bay stay in the more traditional (and expensive) hotels in town or up on the hill, the Santos Express Train Hotel is located right on picturesque Santos Beach – the only hotel so located in town. My ensuite room was spacious and provided spectacular views of the beautiful South African coastline just out my window…

Driving down into Mossel Bay

Pulling up outside my car at the Santos Express Train Hotel

My bedroom at the Santos Express Train Hotel

The bathroom with walk in shower

The view out my window at the Santos Express Train Hotel

The view off my deck

Santos Beach in front of the hotel

Complimentary Breakfast in the hotel restaurant

The hotel bar was a great place to mingle in the afternoons and evenings

From Mossel Bay it was only a short two hour drive to Knysna, my favorite town on the Garden Coast. Once there, I checked into my favorite hotel in all of South Africa – The Inyathi Lodge. Situated in a garden setting within easy walking distance of Knysna’s quaint downtown district, the Inyathi Lodge provides distinctive and comfortable rooms for a fraction of the price charged at Knysna’s more traditional accommodations. A hot cooked breakfast is complimentary each morning, as was plenty of enjoyable interaction with my hosts Riann and Helen.

Rooms at the Inyathi Lodge are set at different levels amidst shady tropical trees

An inviting double room

My single room from the outside

My attractive wood paneled bedroom

My bathroom and shower was located down a short flight of steps

Complimentary Breakfast in the hotel restaurant

Attractive breakfast table setting

It’s just a short drive from Knysna to the high bluffs overlooking the town andits bay. Known as the Knysna Heads, they’re a great place to pack a picnic lunch and take in the view on a sunny afternoon…

The town of Knysna as seen from the hills above town

Entrance to Knysna Bay through Knysna Heads

A little closer view

Rugged coast below Knysna Heads

A nice overlook from which to take in the view

The town of Knysna and its Bay

I took a full day and drove from Knysna up to Outdshoorn. The scenery was spectacular and I visited a couple of very nice wineries along the way. This is an area I’d very much like to explore a bit more. And I will – on my next trip!

During a short detour off the main road…

I discovered this beautiful church

This tree reminded me of one I used to swing from as a kid…

Early autumn colors grace the South African countryside

Deep green gorges punctuated the climb out of George

A beautiful old house in Outdshoorn

A filling lunch at one of Outdshoorn’s many fine eateries

Looking back on a wonderful South African roadtrip

The original plan called for me to drive up to Johannesburg and drop the car off at the airport. However, the more time I spent looking at maps showing step by step instructions on how to drive to my accommodations in the Kensington suburbs or the multitude of steps involved in driving the convoluted route from there out to O.R. Tambo International Airport, the less excited I got about checking out the low rolling hills and quaint towns southwest of Jo’berg.

Since leaving Cape Town all of my driving had been on either the easy to navigate N2 motorway or on well-marked rural roads. The very notion of navigating through the unfamiliar landscape of Johannesburg’s crowded urban highways and narrow leafy side streets proved sufficiently intimidating to have me looking at my air travel options into JNB from cities like George and Port Elizabeth.

Ultimately I settled on Port Elizabeth. Not only was it served by all three of South Africa’s Low Cost carriers, but one of them – Safair - was an airline I’d yet to fly upon. By now some of you may have noticed via my Flight Memory link that I’ve flown on 178 airlines. That’s no accident. I’m always looking for opportunities to fly on new and different airlines and here I had a chance to do just that at a very reasonable price.

Now that I no longer had to drive all the way up to Johannesburg, I stayed an extra night in Knysna and then took a leisurely day at Plettenburg Bay where I spent the night at a very nice and secluded B&B before continuing on to Port Elizabeth early the next morning. I made my way off the N2 and out to the Port Elizabeth airport without much difficulty, dropped off the car and checked in for my flight to Johannesburg. There’s a nice little restaurant landside at PEZ so I stopped in there for lunch before proceeding through security to await the arrival of the 737 that would take me up to Johannesburg.

A nice view from the hills above Plettenburg Bay

A pretty little church in Plettenburg Bay

The relaxing deck at my B&B in Plettenburg Bay

April 28, 2015
Safair Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg 145p – 325p 737-400 Economy Class Class

Safair advertises itself as South Africa’s only true low cost airline. If “true” means its fares apply only to your seat with everything else available for an additional charge, this may be true. It was certainly the most affordable option between Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg though not by much once I included the ancillary fees.

On Safair you’ll pay extra for:

An assigned seat
An extra legroom seat
Checked Baggage
Inflight beverages and snacks

With a checked bag and an assigned extra legroom exit row seat at 15F, my one way fare came out to just $87.00 USD.

I watched through the large windows in the gate lounge as my red, white and blue 737-400 landed and then taxied briskly into the gate. There’s not a lot of ground traffic at Port Elizabeth so the pilots were able to taxi in with considerable alacrity.

A quick check of this airplane’s registration at airfleets.com revealed that it had been delivered new to Turkish Airlines back in 1991 before moving on to serve with Thailand’s Nok Air and Ireland’s notorious Ryan Air. Both of those airlines are extreme low cost carriers, making me all the more thankful that I’d kicked in a bit extra for that exit row seat.

Boarding proceeded apace and I was surprised to find that the seats onboard this aircraft may very well have been the ones last used by Turkish Airlines. They were clearly older and thus better padded and more comfortable than the seats you’d typically associate with an airline like Ryanair. Even the legroom looked to be about 31” throughout.

Not long after I received an exit row briefing from the flight attendant, a man behind me took note of the increased space available in my row and asked the flight attendant if he could relocate to 15D. “Sure” said the FA. “Everybody’s onboard now anyway.” Hmm… I also found it interesting that while I received a thorough exit row briefing, the guy across the aisle from me never did. Nor did the new guy from the cheap seats.

Flight time to Johannesburg was an hour and eighteen minutes. A menu in the seatback pocket listed the food and drink options available on Safair…

Safair Food & Drink

Puffy white clouds dotted the South African veld as we cruised along at thirty-some odd thousand feet on our way up to Johannesburg. As I sipped from my 10.00 ZAR bottle of water, it occurred to me that with local discount carrier 1Time and its MD80s no longer flying, this twenty-four year old 737 must be one of the more vintage jetliners plying South African skies. South African Airlink operates a small fleet of Avro RJ-85s though I’m uncertain as to their age. I am certain however that I’d like to fly upon one the next time I get down to South Africa. It is my favorite regional jet.

Following a wide sweeping turn we made a nice landing at JNB, taxied in and parked at a remote stand. After about five minutes a pair of busses arrived and delivered us to the terminal. Baggage was delivered promptly and I headed out to the arrivals hall to meet my ride from Gandhi’s Backpackers.

* * * _ * _ * * *

Located just fifteen minutes from the airport in the suburb of Kensington, Gandhi’s Backpackers is housed in a stately old house built in 1874. The owner lives in the Nederlands but leases the house out to Heinz, a Swiss national who operates Gandhi’s Backpackers. The story has it that Gandhi himself stayed in this house back in the day, thus the name of the business.

What sets Gandhi’s apart from most backpacker type accommodations is that it is exceptionally clean and quiet. The poolside cabana bar notwithstanding, it is definitely not a party pad for crazed young backpackers to stay up drinking and partying each night away. The rooms are large and airy and the overall vibe is comfortable and laid back.

This was my fourth time staying here. My usual room, located just off the pool, was ready and waiting for me. A large ensuite accommodation, it came with a king sized bed and a wall mounted television. With the favorable exchange rate of the Dollar against the Rand my total cost was just $34.00 USD per night.

Gandhi’s Backpackers

My Room at Gandhi’s Backpackers

Looking Across the Pool to the Cabana Bar

I dropped off my bag and then joined Heinz and his longtime assistant Chris in the thatched roof hut that serves as the bar. Two other guests were sat down at the far end of the bar, thoroughly engrossed in an internet session on one of the hostel’s two computers.

Chris is from Soweto and has worked with Heinz for about five years. He does everything from light maintenance to tending bar to driving the occasional airport transfer. Last time I was here I loaded up Chris’s thumb drive with lots of good American Blues music. This time he’d upgraded to an mp3 player and I was happy to add a wider variety of tunes.

The Bar at Gandhi’s

Later on two couples from New Zealand arrived off an inbound flight from Cape Town. They’d been traveling together around South Africa for almost two weeks and, like me, were repositioning in Johannesburg for their onward flight to North America the next day. Unlike me, they were flying economy class aboard Delta’s sixteen hour 777 flight across the vast expanse of the South Atlantic ocean to Atlanta. I mentioned that I was flying home on Emirates via Dubai but refrained from revealing that I’d be doing so while comfortably ensconced in a First Class Suite. After all, they had a rough enough trip coming up without having to dwell on the comparisons. In any event their excitement at continuing their travels through the U.S. seemed to overshadow any dread at having to do so in the back of the plane.

I had a brief flashback to the days when I used to get excited about long international flights regardless of class flown. Back then I was routinely sat in economy class and remembered well the anticipation and even the enjoyment of simply flying somewhere. Those were good days…

Although there’s an excellent Portuguese restaurant just down the road from Gandhi’s, I was having such an enjoyable time socializing at the bar that I ordered out for pizza instead. I washed it all down with ice cold Windhoek Lagers while listening and contributing to tales of life and travel around the world.

Herein lies the reason why even if the prices were equal I’d much rather stay in a place like Gandhi’s Backpackers than the local Starwood or InterContinental type property favored by so many traditional travelers. Everyone had some great stories to tell. That’s not to say that people at the bar or poolside at any of the nicer hotels wouldn’t also have some entertaining stories to relate but I suspect that for me personally, I’d be much more likely to relate to the life and travels of the backpacker set since that’s pretty much what I’ve been all my life. Even if I inherited millions of dollars tomorrow, you’d still find me staying right here at Gandhi’s while visiting Johannesburg. Besides, it’s unlikely I’d ever be sharing a pizza and trading music with any of the guests at a larger hotel. Additionally, the beers I’d be drinking would probably cost three times more than the 16.00 Rand ($1.30 USD) I was paying for each of my Windhoek Lagers at Heinz’s bar. And finally, there’s no way I’d be sleeping on a king sized bed in a private room with ensuite facilities, satellite television and a continental breakfast included for just $34.00 USD per night. Gandhi’s is definitely my kind of place.
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Old Dec 26, 15, 3:39 am
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April 29, 2015
Emirates Airlines Johannesburg to Dubai 150p – 1159p 777-300 First Class

On five previous departures from South Africa I have had the good fortune to enjoy First Class passage aboard Cathay Pacific’s 12:30pm departure to Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Cathay no longer offers First Class service between Johannesburg and Hong Kong. As an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan member I could also utilize British Airways’ services through London, but those flights come with expensive fuel and security surcharges as well as a First Class product that can be – to put it politely - inconsistent. You can imagine then my surprise and delight when Emirates joined Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan, thus adding yet another great First Class option between South Africa and North America.

I have envisioned myself on this flight ever since. I’m speaking specifically of Emirates’ 1:50pm departure between Johannesburg and Dubai. It’s an exotic route that’s flown at the perfect time of day – a midafternoon departure that will allow me to easily stay awake for the entire flight while enjoying two fine meals and a nice sunset enroute. Some other great routes I have flown in premium class at this time of day include:

Santiago to Mexico City
Los Angeles to Lima
London to Miami
Melbourne to Singapore
Sydney to Honolulu
Sydney to Hong Kong
Buenos Aires to Frankfurt
Johannesburg to Hong Kong
Sao Paulo to Johannesburg

My preferred departure time is anywhere from 11:00am to 6:00pm. The timing is important because from my perspective, international First Class is a lot more enjoyable if the flight departs at a time of day that allows me to actually enjoy the service. Service for me is highlighted by an enjoyable cocktail hour (presented with canapés, of course) and a lavish meal presentation. A good inflight entertainment system and overall seating comfort also contribute significantly to inflight enjoyment.

While a 180° lie flat suite seat and turn down service are all well and good, one cannot appreciate seating comfort while asleep. That is to say a comfortable and more spacious seat may enable you to get to sleep more easily and possibly even sleep better but - once you’re totally asleep - you could just as easily be lying on a concrete floor for all you know since you can’t appreciate creature comforts if you’re not conscious. I was once so tired that I fell asleep while sitting on a stool – hardly the ideal sleeping platform - but I slept for a couple of hours on it and actually felt quite a bit better when I woke up. While I was asleep however I felt no different than if I’d been in my own bed. Another time I fell asleep while hitch hiking down to Denali. I’d come in from the Canadian border and hadn’t slept in over thirty hours. I was tired and decided to hitch from a seated position while leaning back against my backpack. Sitting there on the hard dirt roadside was just comfortable enough that I inadvertently fell asleep right there for a good three hours. Whether or not anybody stopped I’ll never know but I do know that for three hours I slept as soundly as if I’d been in my own bed.

In any event I get plenty of opportunity to sleep at home in a bed that’s far more comfortable than any converted airline seat. That doesn’t mean I never sleep on airplanes or avoid night flights. As a rule however, when it comes to enjoying the benefits of international First Class service I prefer flying during times that allow me the best opportunity to remain comfortably conscious throughout all or most of the flight.

* * * _ * _ * * *

I am not one of those worrisome flyers who abide by all the rules and strive to arrive at the airport the recommended two to three hours in advance of my flight. However, when flying in International First Class aboard an airline of Emirates’ caliber, I am one of those excited flyers who like to arrive three to four hours in advance of my flight so that I’ll have that much more time to enjoy another much cherished aspect of international First Class travel – preflight lounging in the First Class Lounge.

My initial preflight lounge experience came in advance of a First Class flight on Air New Zealand between Los Angeles and Papeete in July of 1981. Back in those days most First Class lounges were a lot less spacious and opulent than the quality facilities we enjoy today. Food and drink offerings were nice though hardly extravagant. A tray of crudités, a bowl of mixed nuts and a selection of finger sandwiches was usually par for the course.

Anticipatory research undertaken in the days leading up to this trip revealed that Emirates’ premium class lounge at Johannesburg was a comfortable and well stocked facility that – in addition to the usual amenities commensurate with its pedigree - also offered a full hot buffet. As such I limited my morning intake to a cup of coffee before bidding adieu to Heinz and heading out to Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport.

Emirates does offer a complimentary chauffer service to the airport for its First Class clientele, however that perk no longer applies to passengers travelling on award tickets. Regardless, I would much rather have ridden with Chris in his old Ford pick-up than deal with the awkwardness of being delivered to the airport while sat alone in the back of some limousine. Call me a rube if you will, but I derive no personal value or satisfaction from being delivered to the airport or to my plane in a luxury car.

It was approaching 10:00am when Chris dropped me off at the international departures terminal. Although it was nearly four hours in advance of my flight, I was confident the check-in counter would be open and available since Emirates operates three daily flights between Johannesburg and Dubai, including a 9:45am departure.

Check-in proceeded as expeditiously as you would expect for a First Class ticket holder and soon I was on my way through security and emigration, armed with a pair of attractive First Class boarding cards printed with lounge invites for Johannesburg and Dubai.

Sweeping through the phalanx of strategically placed airport shops, I bee lined it through the colorful displays of clothing, jewelry, souvenirs and liquor that in most cases and with a modicum of foresight could have easily been purchased at equal or lesser prices prior to arriving at the airport. Or even over the internet after arriving home, for those of us who live in most developed countries.

Located on the mezzanine level above the duty free mall, the Emirates Lounge is accessed through an attractive portal comprised of dark wood walls framing a set of sliding glass doors. Above the doors, “The Emirates Lounge” was highlighted in gold metallic lettering. I was cordially greeted by a receptionist who inspected my boarding card and then gave me a brief overview of the lounge and its facilities along with the wi-fi password.

In terms of overall ambience, this lounge is pleasant though hardly opulent. You enter into a large room with seating for 135 guests. The beige upholstered seats and couches are set around a collection of low coffee tables accented with lamps and potted plants. Large windows run the length of the lounge on both walls, allowing in plenty of natural light.

The Emirates Lounge at Johannesburg

Comfortable seating in the Emirates Lounge

A large flat screen television was mounted at one end of the lounge and just beyond that was a room sporting a well-equipped business center with all the usual accoutrements typically found in such facilities. Continuing on to the other side of the lounge, I rounded a corner and came upon the food service area. It included a hot buffet featuring breakfast items such as eggs, potatoes and breakfast meats. An attractive service island had a variety of fruit plates, yogurts and cheeses on display. A well-stocked self-service bar was available along one wall.

After dropping off my gear at a nearby table, I grabbed a plate and put together an enviable collection of breakfast foods highlighted by a wonderful tomato and asparagus quiche that was every bit as delicious as it looked. Copious quantities of good hot coffee accompanied my feast, along with the latest edition of Business Traveller magazine.

Self-Service Bar at the JNB Emirates Lounge

A delicious start to the day

Between catching up on the latest newspapers and dashing off a set of last minute postcards to friends back home, time passed quickly. By midday the service island contents had been changed to an enticing selection of sandwiches, salads, appetizers and desserts. It was oh so tempting to indulge in an appetizer or three but I exercised admirable restraint in limiting myself to just a small shrimp salad and a ramekin of mixed nuts to accompany my tumbler of Jack Daniels.

It was almost 1:20pm when the first boarding announcement was made for EK762. At only thirty minutes out I thought this was a bit late given the scheduled 1:50pm departure and the distance yet to be walked down to the departure gate. Truth be known, I was on my feet and just getting ready to head down to the gate anyway – if only for a bit of preflight gazing upon my waiting 777.

Despite the fact that this is my eighth flight in First Class aboard Emirates, the anticipation to rejoin the inflight festivities is considerable. Indeed, when you consider the quality of Emirates’ First Class experience, I’d like to think my level of anticipation will be just as high prior to my 25th flight God willing I should be so fortunate.

As I strolled down the length of the broad concourse, it occurred to me how much I enjoy this particular stroll down this particular concourse. That’s because of all the times I’ve previously journeyed down this wonderful promenade, it’s been to board a long flight in international First Class aboard Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong. I am thrilled to add today’s flight on Emirates to the collection and look forward to extending this streak on future departures.

Waiting at the gate was A6-EBB, a beautiful ten year old 777-300LR that looked quite splendid in Emirates’ attractive livery, especially with the Emirates name and logo in stylish gold script along the side of the fuselage. A fair sized crowd had gathered in the gate lounge and I was surprised to see that most of them had already organized into a long and orderly line behind the Economy Class sign. This has not always been my experience when departing Johannesburg, so today’s orderliness was a welcome departure from the chaos that usually prevails. The best thing about it was that I was able to stroll unimpeded to the First and Business Class lane where my passport and boarding pass were summarily inspected after which I was cleared to proceed down the jetway.

Ah, the excitement of it all… Be still, my heart!

By the way, have you ever noticed that scent as you walk down the jetway? It’s generally the same smell at all the world’s best airports when boarding the world’s finest airlines. It’s that clean plane smell. It’s a pretty unique aroma. I’ve only encountered it whilst boarding airplanes and maybe once when for some reason I was sniffing some new shoes. To me at least it’s a most agreeable smell lightly accented with just a tiny hint of Jet A fuel. I’d like to bottle it up and spray it in my old truck. Or maybe in my old shoes. But I digress…

A pair of crisply uniformed flight attendants was stationed at the doorway as I arrived at the end of the jetway. They both looked quite fetching in their beige uniforms with white scarves and red hats. I handed my boarding pass to the nearest one who then welcomed me by name and requested I follow her through the small forward Business Class cabin before parting the heavy beige curtain at the divider and leading the way into the sanctuary of the First Class cabin. There we were met by the lovely Marianna who showed me to my suite – basically by gesturing to her right since it was right there at 2A. She introduced herself and then asked if I’d flown with Emirates before. Indeed I have, I replied. It’s one of my favorite ways to spend a few hours aloft. Following a bit of small talk during which we established that via past experience I was familiar with the functions of my seat and the suites, I was assisted in hanging my sport coat and asked if I’d care for anything to drink. Some Champagne, perhaps?

Now I must admit that unlike some of you here at Flyertalk, I am not an avid aficionado of Champagne. A glass or two is fine but after that I’m ready to move on to something less bubbly. That said, Champagne has long been the traditional salute to many a great voyage over the years – particularly those voyages that commence in grand style aboard the world’s finest airlines, railways and ocean liners. Far be it from me to depart from such a marvelous and time honored tradition, especially when the Champagne being proffered is none other than Cuvée Dom Pérignon, one of the world’s premier Champagnes and one that has quite possibly been poured in more First Class cabins than any other.

“Yes, please!” I said and then kicked off my shoes and settled back into the cool leather upholstery of my plush First Class seat.

Emirates’ First Class Suite

Since they were first introduced aboard the A340-500 a few years ago, Emirates’ First Class suites have gone on to become the stuff of legend. While many other airlines also offer First Class suites, Emirates was the first to introduce sliding doors, effectively turning the suite into a private compartment much as you’d find in a Pullman roomette aboard a railroad sleeper car. Ah, but Emirates’ suite offers so much more than the roomettes of old or even some of the suites of today.

Prominently featured directly in front of me was a large 23” LCD screen through which to take advantage of Emirates’ excellent ICE inflight entertainment program. It was mounted above a spacious table in which was embedded a nicely stocked vanity complete with folding mirror and little round lights. I briefly admired my craggy good looks before closing the mirror and continuing with my inspection. A silver basket containing various snack items had been thoughtfully placed to one side of the table. Above it a plume of orchids placed in a gold trimmed container added tasteful accent to the beige carpeted wall. On the opposite side of the table a small desk lamp completed the table top ensemble while providing warm ambience to the suite. Below the table a shallow drawer contained a writing kit complete with pen, paper and envelopes.

The view looking forward

Seatside Minibar

To my left was a seat-side mini-bar stocked with a variety of non-alcoholic beverages. At the push of a button it quietly receded back into its housing. The seat side table is huge and lifts out and into position much more easily than many others I’ve experienced. There is ample storage space for a small carry-on bag up front and a couple of seat-side compartments for the storage of smaller items such as a camera or book. The controls for the seat, lights, privacy doors and electronic window blinds are all housed in a tablet that’s mounted to the left of the seat. For more convenient operation, this tablet can be removed from its housing and operated wirelessly from your seat. The seat also includes a massage with four different functions available.

Welcome to my home for the next eight hours.

Welcome Aboard

Marianna returned with my Champagne, accompanied by a small ramekin of mixed nuts. I sipped and watched as my fellow passengers filtered into the cabin. There were only five of us fortunate to be sat in the eight suite forward cabin this afternoon, so there would be plenty of time for a relaxed and more personable service. A brief glimpse back into the Business Class cabin revealed a similarly light load back there.

Emirates 777-300 Forward Business Class Cabin

The cavalcade of preflight services continued with the presentation of wonderfully hot steaming towels done in the Oshibori tradition which of course includes the addition of a light scent. A lot of airlines offer hot towels but not since a flight on Northwest Orient many years ago have I had the good fortune to enjoy a proper Oshibori towel. Nicely done, Emirates!

It wasn’t long before another flight attendant arrived with a tray of Arabic coffee and individually wrapped dates. I remember trying a couple of these dates the first time I flew Emirates and I found them not to my liking. The dates, that is. As for mixing strong Arabic coffee and Champagne, that seems like a good recipe for excess stomach acid so I passed and instead awaited a refill on my Champagne. In the interim menus and wine lists were passed out and my roll-a-bord was kindly relocated to the empty suite across the aisle from me.

I could sense we were about ready to close the doors when the Captain came on over the PA, introduced himself and his crew and informed us that our flight time up to Dubai this afternoon would be seven hours and fifty-six minutes. With the exception of a band of thunderclouds to the south of Dubai, we should have a smooth and pleasant flight to look forward to. That sure sounds good to me. Let’s hit the road! Uh sorry, make that runway.

Shortly thereafter, the jet bridges disengaged and pulled back from the aircraft. My Champagne glass was collected and we began our pushback from the gate. As the engines spooled up, I couldn’t help but notice how much quieter the 777-300 is during this time than the shorter -200 model. The -300 includes a 17.5’ fuselage plug ahead of the wings in addition to another 15.75’ one behind the wings. That extra distance forward from the engines really makes a difference in the overall cabin noise level, both on the ground and in the air - particularly just after takeoff during climb out when the engines are working their hardest.

Dubai sits 3,980 miles to the north and a tad east of Johannesburg. The distance is about the same as New York to Milan – well within the range of our 777-300ER which is capable of flying twice that distance. As we made our way out to the runway, I considered that to me at least New York to Milan seems like a pretty long flight whereas this afternoon’s flight of similar length feels more like a short afternoon jaunt. Perhaps it’s our south to north routing which doesn’t appear to cover as much area as the east west route over land and sea between Milan and New York. Then again, perhaps it’s in anticipation of and in comparison to my flight tomorrow between Dubai and San Francisco which checks in at 8090 miles with a scheduled flying time of just over sixteen hours.

Following the thunderous departure of a beautiful Air Seychelles A330, the Captain gently revved the engines and we taxied into position at the head of the runway. Before we take to the air, I’d like to put a shout out to fellow FTer SFO777 whose kind advice proved most helpful in allowing me to secure a First Class seat on this flight with a lot less hassle than I might otherwise have encountered. Thank you, Sir!

Sitting at 5512 ft (1680 meters) above sea level, Johannesburg’s high elevation means that fully laden aircraft require a far greater length of runway to achieve take-off velocity. The western runway, 03L/21R, is over 14,000 ft (4400 meters) long, making it one of the world's longest international airport runways. Our moderately laden 777-300, with its powerful GE90-115B turbofans each capable of generating up to 115,000 pounds of thrust, still required all of 53 seconds before achieving sufficient velocity to break earth’s surly bonds and soar into the warm afternoon skies above Johannesburg.

* * * _ * _ * * *

It’s a beautiful afternoon up here in the soft blue yonder. Cruising along at 587 mph with feet up and seat slightly reclined, life could hardly be finer for a guy like me who lives for these luxurious moments aloft. I keep a separate logbook highlighting only those flights flown in international First Class. No Business Class flights are included - only International First Class. This flight represents my 100th in that esteemed category. As such, I do believe a celebratory drink is in order. Let’s have a look at that drink menu:



Campari Bitter
Martini Vermouth – Dry/Sweet

A selection of international beers including Heineken, Budweiser and Amstel Light

Black Russian, Bloody Mary, Bucks Fizz, Champagne Cocktail, Cosmopolitan (US routes), Fantasy Island, Kir Royal, Manhattan, Martini Cocktail Classic, Screwdriver, Vodka Martini

Orange Fizz, Apple Spritzer

Premium Scotch Whisky - Chivas Regal Royal Salute 21 Years Old, Johnnie Walker Blue Label
Single Malt Whisky - Glenfiddich 21 Years Old
Bourbon - Woodford Reserve
Cognac - Hennessy Privé
Vodka - Grey Goose
Gin - Bombay Sapphire
Rum - Bacardi Superior

Bailey’s Irish Cream
Tia Maria



Cuvée Dom Pérignon 2004

White Wines
Blanc de Lynch Bages 2012 Bordeaux, France
Chevalier Montrachet 2008 Grand Cru Burgundy, France
Chablis Premier Cru Vau de Vey 2012 Burgundy, France
Sancerre Delaporte Cuvee Maxime 2013 Loire, France

Red Wines
Château Pavie 2004 Saint Emilion, France
Domaine du Vieux TélVgraphe 2011 Rhône Valley, France
Contador 2009 Rioja, Spain
Château d’Aiguilhe 2008 Bordeaux, France
Caiarossa IGT Toscana 2007 Tuscany, Italy

Dessert Wine
Château Guiraud 2002 Sauternes, France

Sandeman 40 Year Old Tawny Douro, Portugal

I found it surprising that no South African wines were offered. Regardless, this flight’s assemblage of fine wines and spirits made deciding upon one a most enjoyable endeavor. After a few moments of balanced consideration, I came to the conclusion that a glass of the Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru Burgundy would provide a most delightful salute.

Earlier in the flight Marianna and I had discussed the inflight dining options and at her suggestion I elected to enjoy my Burgundy with samplings of both the hot and cold savories. After the wine been presented, poured, tasted and approved, my glass was filled and two small plates of canapés were delivered.

Wine and Canapés at 37000’

For me at least, this is what it’s all about – comfortably ensconced in a wide comfortable seat being wined and dined like a plutocrat while out my window the beautiful blue world of the troposphere provides a magnificent backdrop that is every bit as exquisite as it is soothing. This is commercial air travel at its finest. I am indeed a fortunate flyer.

As I savored the Burgundy and delicious canapes, I reflected back on some of the ninety-nine other First Class flights I’ve enjoyed over the years. The average length of my one hundred First Class flights comes to 4,611 miles per flight. It’s a shame Flyertalk wasn’t around back in the 70s and 80s because I could have provided some wonderful trip reports. In lieu of those, please join me while I take a brief stroll down Memory Lane…

My first experience in International First Class was actually flown entirely within North American boundaries. Starting in Vancouver, Canada on a sunny afternoon in April of 1976, I boarded a QANTAS 747 named “City of Canberra” and flew to Honolulu with an intermediate stop in San Francisco. Along the way I was served a wonderful six course dinner highlighted by a delightful Bouillabaisse and a savory Roast Rib Eye of Beef. Equally exciting was a visit to the magnificent upstairs lounge known as the Captain’s Club. To this day it remains the most nicely appointed airliner lounge I have ever had the good fortune to enjoy.

QANTAS’s Captain’s Club

In 1981 I flew from Los Angeles to Tahiti and back on an airline industry discount. Outbound was aboard an Air New Zealand DC-10, complete with big wide lamb’s wool covered seats and one of the most extravagant meals I have ever been served aloft. The return was aboard a shiny new UTA 747. Luncheon was served on the seven and a half hour flight to LA and was highlighted by a fantastic feathered fois gras presentation atop the trolley.

In 1987, I took advantage of a favorable exchange rate on the US dollar to purchase a First Class mileage ticket between Auckland and Tokyo. The maximum permitted routing on Mileage Tickets is based upon the nonstop mileage between the origin and destination cities plus 25%. Along the way I could use any combination of airlines and routes to get from Auckland to Tokyo so long as my total mileage didn’t exceed 25% of the nonstop mileage between those two cities. Here’s the routing I came up with along with the meals served:

Auckland – Melbourne Air New Zealand 747-219 Luncheon
Melbourne – Sydney - Brisbane Ansett 767-277 Luncheon / Snack
Brisbane – Sydney - Singapore Singapore Airlines 747-212 Snack / Luncheon
Singapore – Bangkok Thai International 747-200 Dinner
Bangkok – Hong Kong Cathay Pacific 747-267 Luncheon
Hong Kong – Tokyo Swissair 747-357 Luncheon

In the late 80s and early 90s I took advantage of Continental’s affordable flights between the U.S. and Australia. Continental’s DC-10-30s sported wide and plush First Class sleeper seats along with lavishly catered meals, my favorite of which was highlighted by an appealing fois gras presentation followed by the best lobster tail I have ever been served inflight.

Those were some fine days, my friends. Although the older First Class cabins with their first generation sleeper seats and rudimentary IFE options were nowhere near as advanced as the modern First Class cabins currently available, the meal service was generally on par with what we enjoy today. I particularly miss the panache of the trolley service and the magnificent presentations of food laid out for all to admire.

Fois Gras and Appetizers on an Air France 707

Lobster, Salmon and Caviar on a BOAC VC10

Dessert is served on an Air New Zealand DC-8

An elaborate trolley service properly presented could transform your dinner from a meal into an event. Nothing quite matched the mouthwatering anticipation of seeing beautifully assembled trays of food paraded down the aisle and watching as your flight attendant skillfully put together tantalizing plates of food for others and finally, for yourself.

Because mealtimes were fixed, it really felt like a group event that we all celebrated together. Though it’s hard to argue against the private, individualized service offered these days, the group approach sure was fun – a shared culinary adventure that was often the highlight of the flight.

* * * _ * _ * * *

I don’t know about you but all this reminiscing about airline meal service is making me hungry! Let’s have a look at what’s available on this afternoon’s flight. The menu is housed in an attractive leather bound holder, If appearances are any indication of the menu’s quality, we should be in for quite a feast!

Emirates First Class Menu



Johannesburg to Dubai

A selection of hot and cold savories including beef kofta, vegetable samosa, salmon cake, Mediterranean bruschetta with scampi and peppered goat’s cheese



Perfectly prepared chilled caviar presented with a traditional selection of finely chopped onion, grated egg, sour cream and lemon, served with crisp melba toast and blinis

Traditional Arabic Mezze
The flavors of our home, presented as a generous spread of traditional Arabic savory dishes including fresh tabbouleh, baba ghanouj, creamy houmous, spinach marinated with yogurt, muhammara, moutabel and stuffed vine leaves, warm spinach fatayer, lamb kibbeh and cheese fatayer complemented by local garnishes and breads

Seared Tuna Steak
On a mixed green salad, served with sliced mango and a citrus dressing

Five-Spiced Chicken
Served with butternut squash purée, spinach and a sesame and soy mayonnaise

Seasonal Salad
Fresh salad leaves topped with cherry tomatoes, celery, olives and baby mozzarella
Served with your choice of dressing

Cream of Asparagus Soup
Garnished with sour cream and roasted almond flakes

Chicken Consommé
Accented with tomato brunoise and basil


Chicken Machbous

Chicken marinated in aromatic spices and slow cooked with rice
Garnished with roasted pine nuts and served with a refreshing raita

Grilled Beef Fillet
Served with tarragon and garlic jus, mashed potatoes, buttered carrots and peas

Roast Salmon Fillet
Served with roasted pepper coulis, creamy polenta, sautéed broccoli and sugar snap peas

Mushroom Linguine
Topped with sautéed mushrooms, breadcrumbs and parmesan

Grilled Chicken
Served with orange demi-glace, roasted pumpkin and pea and potato purée

A La Carte Vegetable Selection
We also offer a variety of alternatives, including roasted potato with rosemary, sautéed spinach and red pepper, stir-fried vegetables and steamed basmati rice

Bread Basket
A variety of freshly baked rolls, Arabic and garlic breads


Sticky Toffee Pudding

Served with caramel sauce and vanilla cream

Lemon and Raspberry Tart
Served with red fruit coulis

Seasonal Fruit
An assortment of freshly cut fruits

Cheese Board
A carefully chosen assortment of the finest boutique cheeses from around the world,
served with crudités, crackers, dried fruits and nuts

Fine luxury chocolates

Now that is one impressive menu! As a long time collector of international First Class airline menus, I don’t believe there’s another airline offering anywhere near the variety of foods that Emirates does. While some might argue that the amount of food offered here are excessive, I would submit that when you consider the cost of most international First Class tickets in either money or miles, it’s better to offer too much than not enough.

That said, after long and careful consideration of the many choices I informed Marianna that I’d like to start with a plate of caviar followed by an appetizer of Five-Spiced Chicken. A salad would be nice, thanks, and for the main course… I think I’ll go with the Chicken Machbous. I’ve often seen this dish listed on other menus and it’s about time I found out what exactly it is.

One of the nice things about these private suites is that you can leave your window shades up without the worry of bothering anyone else. I’ve always believed that windows were installed on planes for a reason and I generally like to take full advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the view from on high. Out my window the sun shone brightly, still high above the western horizon. I noted on the SkyMap that we were about 300 miles east of Lusaka, Zambia. What a great perch from which to enjoy a delicious lunch!

Two flight attendants were working the First Class cabin this afternoon and the second one, Hannah, stopped by now with my table settings. Crisp white linen was laid followed by an attractive gold rimmed serving plate and silverware. Emirates use Royal Doulton bone china plates with distinctive Robert Welch cutlery and I must say on the dining table the effect was most impressive. A small bread plate, salt and pepper shakers, butter and individual bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar came next, followed by a bounty of bread presented in a stylish white bowl. Very nice…

Emirates First Class Table Setting

The caviar arrived soon after, nicely plated with all the traditional accompaniments of chopped egg, onion, sour cream and lemon. Although three blinis were also included, I prefer the flavor combination of caviar and all the trimmings atop garlic bread. Mmm! Downright decadent!

The Caviar Course

Next up was the Five-Spiced Chicken. I was thankful that the portion size was not too large because for guys like me who like to indulge in each course of a First Class meal, it’s very easy to begin feeling full even before the main course arrives. The chicken was good – if a bit dry – but that was easily offset by dipping each bite in the accompanying mayonnaise and/or squash.

Five Spice Chicken

It’s hard to serve a bad salad – at least per my tastes. Once I’d removed the olives, this salad tasted very good with a generous splash of zesty balsamic vinegar and oil.

The Salad Course

Service proceeded smoothly with either Marianna or Hannah efficiently clearing off old plates and delivering new ones in a timely manner. By the time the main course was brought out, we were almost an hour and a half into the flight, speeding north over Mozambique at a sprightly 983 km/h.

So that’s Chicken Machbous! The menu writers did a good job of embellishing what is essentially a pile of rice and chicken topped with pine nuts. Although this meal may not have been all that visually appealing, it was actually pretty good. Knowing now what I do about Chicken Machbous, would I order it again while sat in international First Class? No. But I wouldn’t hesitate to try it again while sat in an earthbound café.

Chicken Machbous

Typically I never eat dessert at home or even while dining out but when it comes to First Class airline fare, my curiosity demands that I at least consider it. Once again I was appreciative of the smaller portions offered with each course of this meal. I wouldn’t say any of them were actually “small” per se but rather they were not too large and overbearing. The benefit of this was of course that I now had room for dessert.

So then – what’ll it be? Marianna waited patiently while I pondered over the choices… Let’s go with… the Sticky Toffee Pudding. When I grew up pudding was this soft creamy stuff that was apparently only available at the store. I never heard of anyone ever making homemade pudding. Instead, I and my sweet toothed peers were bombarded with television ads featuring the comedian Bill Cosby selling Jell-O brand puddings. I quite liked those puddings, too – especially the skin after it had just cooled. These days however, my more refined and experienced palate much prefers the taste and texture of a proper English pudding, especially one topped with caramel sauce and vanilla cream much as I was served today. Deee – licious!

Sticky Toffee Pudding

A cup of coffee and a small sampling of exquisitely silky Sauternes accompanied my pudding and helped bring this meal to a most satisfying close.

Well done, Emirates. Well done.

* * * _ * _ * * *

With about six hours still to go until we reached Dubai, I turned my attention to getting this flight logged and putting in some work on this trip report. I generally don’t spend much time watching movies on airplanes. Emirates’ excellent ICE inflight entertainment system and 23” screen notwithstanding, I’ve got a bigger and better screen back home. On the other hand, my laptop’s loaded with music I like and lots of fun projects to work on – like this trip report.

Well at this particular moment in time I hadn’t gotten any farther than writing about the first leg of my eleven day Amtrak extravaganza. We’re talking waaaaay back in late March, riding the Empire Builder between Chicago and Portland.

Some of you may recall me commenting earlier in this novella upon the importance of diligence and timely updates with regard to keeping up on written trip reports. Photo reporters can get away with more because the heavy lifting – in the form of their photographs – has already been done. So long as they continue to take photographs throughout their journey, they’re essentially caught up and current. All they have to do when they get ready to prepare their report - aside from adding a descriptive paragraph or two – is install the Vb code needed to display their photographs. Now that’s no small task in itself. I know because I have to do it for the over 300 photos that will ultimately compliment this report. And that’s after I finish writing and editing the report.

For us writers, the real work is in the written word. It ain’t always easy. Sometimes it takes me the better part of a rainy afternoon to come up with just a couple of paragraphs. I’m not some literary genius who can routinely and effortlessly churn out intelligent, relevant and entertaining prose. That would be eightblack! Sometimes I can but more often than not it’s pretty slow going for me.

Above all it’s important to do it as well as I can. I’m putting my work out there for public consumption and we’re not talking Ma and Pa Kettle types who limit their travel reading to Fodor’s guides. Rather my audience is comprised of savvy and experienced travelers from all over the world. None of you will ever justify sitting in Economy Class with the lame “We all get there at the same time” excuse. Rather, you truly appreciate the differences and benefits of premium class travel and are willing to do what it takes to put your selves there, be it playing the system via FFPs or paying the difference outright. Best of all, you actually seem to enjoy reading about it all. You’re my kind of audience and you deserve my best effort.

As for the timeliness of this report, I’m hoping you’ll give me a pass. When it comes to devoting well over one hundred hours to writing and completing an as yet incomplete trip report about travels that took place over six months earlier, many might throw up their hands in resignation and say “Why bother?”

I take pride not only in writing great trip reports but also in coming up with imaginative and entertaining itineraries. This is a great trip! Not only is it geographically diverse ranging the world over from Hawaii to Dubai but it also includes a fantastic rail tour around America as well as premium class flights aboard seven airlines as well as a variety of other spicy interludes. This is a trip well worth the time invested in describing it to you all and if you’ve bothered to read this far I should imagine you concur with that assessment.

And so here we are – me sitting here on a snowy Alaska afternoon in late November writing about me sitting aboard an Emirates 777 back in late April while writing about a train ride taken in late March.

Confused yet? Are you still with me? Well good! Hey – let’s take a short break, go out and grab a bite to eat and then come back and continue. While you’re at it you might want to refill your glass with whatever it is you’re drinking. I always get a kick out of reading posts from those of you who’ve mentioned accompanying my reports with an outstanding assortment of exceptional wines, scotches and other spirits. I am honored that anyone might deem my reports worthy of such distinction. Thank you.

As for me, I’m sticking with the old tried and true – a glass of Woodford Reserve on ice. It’s as good here at home this afternoon as it was while pecking away from the comfort of my First Class suite nearly seven months ago.

November 22, 2015

April 29, 2015

* * * _ * _ * * *

Like I was saying, there’s a reason they put windows on commercial jetliners. Those who routinely close their window shades and disappear into the artificial world of digitized entertainment often miss out on some spectacular displays of natural splendor right outside their windows.

I selected suite 2A on this flight because it was on the westward facing side of the aircraft and I wanted to be in position to enjoy a nice sunset if it should happen. Here are the results:

Sunset off the coast of Somalia

Sunset off the coast of Somalia

Sunset off the coast of Somalia

Sunset off the coast of Somalia

Sunset off the coast of Somalia

Time flies when you’re having fun. Over the next four hours I put in some quality time on this trip report, took a couple of strolls to the back of the airplane (Did you know that the 777-300’s passenger cabin is 7 feet longer than that of the 747-400?) and tried my luck on the trivia game that’s part of the ICE games selections. As a guy who’s enjoyed keeping up on current events ever since I was a kid, I usually do pretty well at these trivia contests with the exception of pop culture. Today was no different as I set some records that ought to stick around for quite a while or at the very least until the system gets reset later this evening.

Hannah had informed me earlier in the flight that hot food items could be ordered and served up to an hour and a half prior to arrival in Dubai. Taking her at her word, I arranged to have my second meal served as late as possible. Hannah recommended ordering in advance to better ensure that my selections would be available, so I once again reached for the menu and considered the possibilities…



Salmon with guacamole, roasted beef with tomato, chicken with sundried tomato cream, and mozzarella with tomato and pesto

Hot Meal Selection

Cottage Pie
Meat pie with a mashed potato topping

Tomato and Mozzarella Quiche
Served with tomato pesto, grilled marrow and aubergine

Red Chicken Curry
Served with steamed jasmine rice


Petits Fours
Fruit tartlet, mocha mousse, lemon tartlet and chocolate mousse



Chamomile, Ceylon, Earl Grey or Green

Freshly brewed or Nespresso (espresso, cappuccino or decaffeinated)

I decided to start with another round of canapés – both hot and cold – followed by a plate of Red Chicken Curry. As for dessert, I think a cup of mint tea ought to hit the spot. Hannah returned now with linens and place settings, so I quickly shut down my laptop and prepared for the second meal. A Bloody Mary was delivered, followed shortly by the canapés.

I don’t know about you all, but I love finger foods! It doesn’t matter whether I’m earthbound or flying high, canapés and hors d’oeuvres are second only to the main course when it comes to my favorite part of the meal, Most airlines don’t come around with trays of canapés during cocktail hour anymore, but back when they did my favorites were Air New Zealand and Aerolineas Argentinas. Both of those airlines put on a real show with all manner of delectable tidbits presented atop large silver trays. Closer to home, United’s Pu Pu Platters on its Royal Hawaiian Service flights to the Islands were also worth looking forward to, especially when accompanied by United’s delicious Trader Vic’s Mai Tais or Menehune Juice cocktails. Anyone here remember those?

Cocktails and Canapés – Round 2

Back home in Fairbanks, Alaska we have thirteen Thai restaurants. Al but four of them are full service facilities, complete with comfortable seating, ornate Thai decorations and most importantly – excellent Thai food. Anyway, the point I’m making here is that I’ve eaten a lot of Thai food over the years, including quite a few curries – always warm and filling on a cold winter day.

The curry I was served today was okay in a TV dinner kind of way – a decent enough presentation and just enough curry in it to where you could discern that curry was indeed one of the ingredients. Some might say it was very good. If I sound less than enthusiastic it’s because over the years I’ve come to appreciate the power of a good curry everywhere from Fiji to Kuala Lumpur to London and, per my tastes at least, it is best appreciated when employed in quantities sufficient to warm you up.

Red Chicken Curry

As with all of the world’s best airlines, one of the hallmarks of great service is attention to detail. This is often evidenced from the time you check-in right on through the smallest service request inflight. The presentation of my tea at the end of the meal was a good example of this. With the flight winding down and the cabin crew eager to button up the galley, some airlines might simply have delivered me a nice cup of hot tea to end my meal. Marianna set out a beautiful tea service complete with a small plate of cookies.

A nice ending to the flight

The lights of Dubai twinkled in the distance as we made our approach through layers of small puffy clouds. The Skymap indicated that even at 10000’ the temperature outside was a balmy 62°F. Hmm… I wonder how warm it is atop the 2,722’ high Burj Khalifa?

The Captain initiated a final big turn and, following some minor course adjustments soon had us lined up for final. A glance at my watch indicated that the pre-flight estimate of seven hours and fifty-six minutes was spot on. Sweeping over the threshold, our wheels gently kissed the tarmac at 11:58pm local time. The Supercarb® carbon and carbon composite brake discs efficiently slowed us from a landing speed of approximately 165 mph to a much more manageable taxi speed of about 15 mph. In the distance a 747-400 freighter looked quite striking with the large golden script of Emirates’ livery gracing its forward fuselage. I would like to have seen how Emirates’ First Class might have translated into the nose of a 747 – still my all-time favorite platform for premium class air travel. Unfortunately Emirates operate only the cargo version of Boeing’s iconic jumbo.

We parked over at Terminal B where the crack night crew was ready and waiting for us at gate B22. The jetway was quickly and efficiently attached and, after thanking Marianna and Hanna for a job well done, I made my way off the aircraft and up the modern glass walled jet bridge.

Looking back, this flight epitomized the splendor of international caliber First Class air travel in every respect: A spacious and comfortable suite, a delicious meal and a relaxing and productive midflight experience - all highlighted by caring and attentive service. Add to that a smooth flight along with the spectacular sunset and this flight comes very close to scoring a perfect 10.

Well done, Emirates! Well done!

Last edited by Seat 2A; Dec 26, 15 at 7:05 pm
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