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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: From Connecticut to Alaska by Road, Rail, Air & Sea (and SE Asia)

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: From Connecticut to Alaska by Road, Rail, Air & Sea (and SE Asia)

Old Oct 7, 18, 9:22 pm
FlyerTalk Evangelist
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Million Miler, United Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond, Choice Hotels Diamond
Posts: 11,634
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: From Connecticut to Alaska by Road, Rail, Air & Sea (and SE Asia)

The initial impetus for this trip was to travel by train from Boston to Seattle via a redeemed Amtrak award. Additionally, I had a couple of business related issues in Colorado to attend to. So then, pretty simple, right? Fly to Boston, visit with friends in Connecticut, ride the rails from Boston to Seattle, make a quick trip down to Colorado and then return home. All told, I’d be gone for two weeks.

For most people – including many here at FlyerTalk - this would be an exciting, well-rounded trip. In the planning stages, it was for me, too – for a couple days at least.

I’d already booked flights from Fairbanks to Boston as well as my train reservations across the continent to Seattle. A cheap $69.00 fare on Alaska got me from Seattle down to Denver. Now all I had to do was find myself a flight back to Alaska from Colorado. That’s where the “problem” started.

It was the usual “problem” for me – an excess of free time on my hands. Since I didn’t have to report back to my job in Denali National Park until early May, there was no pressing need to return home right away. With a big glut of miles built up in my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account, why not redeem some of them and have a little fun?

With three extra weeks to work with, I began to consider the possibilities. I’d already taken a three week trip around Australia back in September, so that was out. Besides, I may be back next there next fall. Europe might be nice but it costs a fortune relative to other destinations and outside of the very expensive award options available on British Airways, premium class seats to Europe – especially in First Class - can be very difficult to come by. South America or Africa might be nice but… for the time being at least, I just wasn’t feeling it for either of those two destinations.

How about South East Asia? I’d always wanted to travel by train on the 1200 mile overland route from Singapore up to Bangkok. Now would be a great opportunity to do that. Additionally, a trip to South East Asia would present an excellent opportunity to check out Hainan Airlines and its highly regarded Business Class service.

So – I got to thinking…

I’ve got an active imagination steeped in years of practical experience that includes 5.4 million miles of flying and 300,000 miles of train travel across 36 countries. For the most part, if I think of it I can usually figure out a way to make it happen. And because I love the planning involved in figuring out how to get somewhere every bit as much as I enjoy actually being there, I’m content to spend hours checking out all the various options, fares and times involved.

* * * _  _ * * *

I wasn’t necessarily set on Singapore as a destination. I’ve also wanted to ride trains in Indonesia and Vietnam, but then I wasn’t totally sold on a train ride either. I would also have been happy to visit the Philippines for the first time. All of this meant I was considering a variety of airlines and destinations.

After a few days of cogitating over the myriad options, I got lucky. In the same week – two months out no less – I found single First Class seats on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and on Japan Airlines from Tokyo back to New York. Even better, they were perfectly timed departures – the 12:30pm Cathay flight out of Los Angeles and the 6:30pm JAL flight out of Tokyo. Holy cow, Batman! Here I had started out the week looking forward to checking out Hainan Airlines’ five star service aboard one of its new 787-9s across to Beijing and beyond but hey - First Class beats Business Class any day, so now I’ve got to figure out where to go beyond Hong Kong.

I’ve really been looking forward to flying aboard Airbus’ new A350. Booking this award with Cathay Pacific provided an excellent opportunity to do just that as they operate their A350s on a variety of intra-Asian routes emanating from Hong Kong. I was sorely tempted to book any number of available flights to everywhere from Singapore to Manila to Ho Chi Minh City. There was however just one problem…

I’ve flown Cathay Pacific many times before. Dating back to my very first flight in March of 1987, I’ve had the good fortune to have logged thirty flights totaling over 170,000 miles with the jewel of the Swire Group. And here’s the kicker – all of those flights have been in International First Class. Yes- you’ve read that right. I’ve never before flown in Business or Economy on Cathay Pacific. That streak has provided a cache of indelibly wonderful memories in addition to being a pretty sweet record if I do say so myself. Indeed, it’s one that I’d like to maintain if at all possible.

Airbus’ A350 is a well built and popular airplane that is operated by dozens of the world’s finest airlines including three (LATAM, Finnair and Singapore) that are affiliated with Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan. I’m sure I will have many opportunities in the coming years to log a flight or three on it.

In the meantime, Cathay Pacific just happened to be offering a rare First Class configured 777-300 between Hong Kong and Bangkok. The benefits to me in booking this flight were twofold. First, my streak of First Class flights on Cathay would continue unabated. Second, because I was flying out of Hong Kong in First Class I’d have an excellent opportunity to check out Cathay’s recently refurbished First Class lounge The Pier. Heck, with a twenty hour layover in Hong Kong I’d have time enough to lounge hop through The Wing, The Cabin, The Bridge and The Pier if I so chose.

So it was settled. I booked myself a connecting seat in First Class from Hong Kong down to Bangkok. Now then, where to next?

* * * _  _ * * *

Keep in mind that in the planning stages, this trip started out with me trying to figure out how to get back to Alaska from Colorado. Although I’d now booked myself halfway across the world to Southeast Asia, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to play with. Indeed, as with more than a few of my trips of late, I wouldn’t even be over here in Southeast Asia were it not for an abundance of mileage in my Mileage Plan account just waiting to be redeemed. As it were I’d be spending just ten days in the region.

Many people would consider expending 150000 miles on such a short trip to an exotic destination such as Thailand and Laos a waste of time and money – or miles as the case may be. Once upon a time, I probably would have, too. I would have wanted to get as much value as I could off of those miles but then back in those days, if I’d have redeemed 150000 miles, it likely would have depleted everything in my account. How times have changed…

In the years prior to my joining FlyerTalk, I used to take much longer trips, living out of my backpack and often staying in the destination countries for weeks, sometimes months. Back in the eighties I spent a lot of time around Southeast Asia, too. It’s a shame FlyerTalk wasn’t around then because I could’ve submitted some pretty good trip reports with the focus having been on the destination more so than the mode of transport. That’s right – I used to keep a hand written diary of my travels, writing about all the usual things people typically like to read about – where I went, what I did, who I met, where I stayed, etc. Back then, my writing was no different from what most people post in their travelogues these days.

As a budget traveler my intent was to stay and travel around wherever I was for as long as I could. The focus was totally on the destination, less so on how I got there or the quality and comfort of my accommodations once I was there. As such, my travels were generally quite a bit rougher than what most of you who post here enjoy because I was often using the cheapest local transport and staying in hotels and hostels that no self-respecting FlyerTalker would ever think of staying in. Still, it was so exciting to just be out there seeing and experiencing the beauty and culture and tastes and smells of all of these new places that I look back on those roughhewn travels as some of the finest times I ever had abroad.

By the time the new millennium arrived, I’d already visited 34 countries and logged over 2,000,000 air miles. It should be noted however that many of those air miles were garnered while taking advantage of Unlimited Mileage Fare promotions that were common through the late seventies and early eighties. Over a half million miles were flown as a result of having participated in United Airlines’ 50 State Marathon promotion. All told, in the days before I joined FlyerTalk in 2001 I’d already had the good fortune to have traveled more than most people get a chance to do in their entire lifetimes. I still have those old diaries from trips all over the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and South America, too. They take up about nine inches of space on my book shelves and they’re still fun to pull out and read every now and then.

So what’s changed? First and foremost, I’ve become a lot more skilled at accruing airline miles. I did my first true mileage run in 1988 in response to a triple mileage offer from United Airlines. That trip involved three transcon roundtrips that I paid about $225.00 each for. Throughout the nineties I’d take advantage of the occasional deal but for the most part my flying was limited to necessary business or pleasure related travel.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some of you may recall that airfares here in the United States plummeted to levels never before seen. I remember roundtrip trans-cons going for as little as $105.00 all-in. I remember buying five roundtrip tickets between Denver and Philadelphia priced at just $55.00. Roundtrip. Nowhere else in the world could you travel by air so inexpensively while accruing so many miles. I couldn’t help but take advantage of these great deals and as a result I started flying a lot more. Prior to 2000 I averaged about 60000 miles of flying per year. Since 2000 I’ve averaged just over 181,000 miles flown per year. The mileage I accrued began to reach unprecedented levels and with it came top tier program status. As a result, I began to fly a lot more in the First Class cabin – both at home and abroad.

I was just starting to get a touch of grey in my sideburns when I discovered FlyerTalk in early 2001. I’d been searching the internet for information on First and Business Class services aboard the world’s great and not so great airlines and most of what I’d found up to that point was through the airlines’ websites or via comparatively dry reports published in magazines such as Business Traveler. Imagine then my surprise and delight to stumble upon a website called FlyerTalk where I came across this beautifully written trip report detailing First Class travel aboard American Airlines’ Flagship Service between San Jose and Tokyo. More than just a basic description and assessment of the services offered, this report captured the writer’s excitement and passion for the First Class experience as he anticipated and experienced every aspect of American’s once excellent International Flagship First Class Service. Perhaps most amazing by today’s Trip Report Forum standards was that the reporter accomplished this without the use of even a single photograph.

The writer was tfung. There were no pictures in his report because back then the ability to imbed photos had not yet been established. That was a real positive though because to me at least a collection of photos – while certainly colorful and eye catching – was never able to adequately convey the sheer excitement and anticipation of flying First Class, and that’s what I was looking to experience while reading a trip report. tfung was a real pro and although he no longer writes trip reports, we were fortunate to have him while he lasted.

I should add that my preference toward written reports does not in any way mean that I consider photo-reports less appealing in a universal sense. They are clearly the most popular format in the Trip Reports forum today and for good reason. They are much more easily accessible than having to slog your way through a few thousand words of text and you can still get a pretty good sense of what the flight and service are all about. My preference for the written word has more to do with the fact that I’ve always enjoyed reading and besides, I’m really not all that good of a photographer anyway.

But I digress. Getting back to tfung’s report - after my second or third read of it, I then headed over to the Trip Report Forum title page where I discovered dozens of other written reports focusing on inflight premium services, some of them very nicely composed as well.

I’ve always had a fascination with and appreciation for the actual performance of traveling, i.e. flying there, riding there on a train or driving there in a car. In particular I’ve always been particularly taken with the style of travel - or perhaps more to the point – traveling in style. Most traditional travelogues – including the ones I’d written in my pre-FT days - gave only short shrift to the actual experience of getting there. Now suddenly here was a forum where people actually wrote specifically about their flight experiences. It was almost too good to be true!

In FlyerTalk I saw not only a fantastic opportunity to write about First Class travel but also an audience that included a significant number of people who actually wanted to read about it. Believe me, readers of Travel & Leisure magazine or Fodor’s guide books have next to no interest in any of this – but then most of those folks are perpetually sat back in Economy Class so who can blame them?

Additionally, one of the best parts of publishing at FlyerTalk is that I didn’t even need to be an accomplished writer. I can’t believe how forgiving you all are of my long winded descriptions, occasionally poor grammar and/or disjointed sentence structure. So thank you for that because it’s certainly been a lot of fun trying my hand at this travel reporting thing.

It was back in February of 2002 that I submitted my first trip report covering international premium class travel for FlyerTalk. That report was titled Alaska to New Zealand ~ The Long Way and it involved First and Business Class travel aboard Alaska Airlines, British Airways and Air New Zealand traveling via Los Angeles, London, Singapore and Melbourne. Some of you old timers may recall that particular trip lasted from early February all the way through to early May and included a return via Finland and Canada. Over the course of those travels I submitted a total of six trip reports, none of them inclusive of pictures. Judging from the comments however, people still seemed to enjoy those reports even so.

Those initial positive responses provided the impetus to crank out another seventy-one reports. If it weren’t for the volume and sincerity of those early comments, I probably would’ve shrugged and let it go after just two or three reports. So thanks for the love, gang! It’s been fun cranking out these reports for an appreciative audience.

In any event, since those halcyon times in the early days of FlyerTalk, I’ve earned and redeemed literally millions upon millions of air miles. Where once the redemption of a couple hundred thousand miles would have left my account distressingly low, these days my accrued mileage totals have gone from a couple hundred thousand to well over a million – enough so that I don’t feel so bad about burning the odd 150,000 now and then on a seemingly frivolous short trip such as this.

Which brings us back to Bangkok and the question of the moment: With six days to work with, where do I go from here?

* * * _  _ * * *

Some might say why go anywhere? Bangkok is a fascinating and exotic city with more than enough amazing places and attractions to entertain anybody over six days. That’s all well and good but alas, for me it really is a case of been there, done that. I spent about ten days in Bangkok back in the eighties and felt like I saw enough of the city and its environs then to satisfy me for a lifetime.

One thing that has inspired many of my travels has been the opportunity to ride trains from all around the world. Over the years I have ridden and reported upon First Class rail journeys everywhere from Argentina to Australia, from Scotland to South Africa, across Russia to China and of course all over the United States. I’m always open to new rail adventures and as such remain ever vigilant about new routes, equipment and affordable deals.

Anytime I need to find out anything about rail travel anywhere in the world, my go-to website is Seat61.com. Whatever you want to know about traveling by rail in most any country on the planet, it is available at this excellent website. That includes information about the trains, the accommodations, the routes including schedules and even descriptions and reviews from fellow travelers.

My first plan was to ride the rails between Bangkok and Singapore. Alas, two things put the kibosh on that plan. First and foremost, there is no longer train service between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Secondly – and equally importantly – there was no First Class space available between Kuala Lumpur and the border town of Hat Yai. Oh well. There’ll be other opportunities someday.

During a more thorough perusal of the Asian section, I took note of the fact that Thailand Railways recently invested in some new First Class rail carriages. They are modern and look quite comfortable – much nicer than what passed for rail transport during my time in Thailand thirty years ago. As an added bonus, a First Class compartment on these new cars can be had at exceptionally affordable rates. Now seemed like an excellent opportunity to check them out.

After consulting the Thailand Railway schedules, I settled on Vientiane - just across the border in neighboring Laos. The 8:00pm departure of the First Class train also meant that given my late afternoon arrival at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, I’d have more than enough time to catch a taxi downtown to Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong railroad station to pick up my pre-arranged tickets. Los Angeles  Hong Kong  Bangkok  Vientiane. Bim, Bam, Boom! I like it.

From Vientiane I found a $78.00 flight back to Bangkok aboard Lao Airlines - my 195th airline flown. Then I booked a flight aboard Bangkok Airways up to Chiang Mai for just $65.00. Check off my 196th airline flown. I’d visited Chiang Mai briefly back in ’87. I always liked the town, the setting and especially the delicious cuisine of northern Thailand. Now would be a great time for a quick return visit.

Following a return to Bangkok, it would be time to return to the U.S. via Tokyo and New York. Unfortunately the only Business Class seats available out of Bangkok up to Tokyo on Japan Airlines did not depart until later that night on the 11:30pm redeye to Narita. My train from Chiang Mai was scheduled to arrive in Bangkok at 6:50am, leaving me an almost seventeen hour layover. As such, I’d need to book a day use room at one of the many hotels nearby Suvarnabhumi.

While all of this was easily doable, the fact of the matter is that I abhor flying on redeyes. Unless there’s absolutely no other option, I avoid short overnight flights as much as possible. Six hours up to Tokyo may sound like a long flight to some of you, but for a guy who really looks forward to enjoying the premium class experience, I knew I was going to want to check out the food offerings either upon departing Bangkok or prior to arriving in Tokyo. That meant I’d be left with perhaps four hours to sleep with maybe only three of those being anything approaching quality sleep. Now back in my younger days, I could have pulled this off without a hitch. These days however I don’t do so well on anything less than about six hours of quality sleep. Add to this the fact that our early morning arrival in Tokyo would leave me with a 12 hour layover at Narita - much of that time spent wandering around like a zombie even if it were in JAL’s First Class Lounge. I decided to explore other options.

Vietnam Airlines had an affordable and nicely timed 11:20am departure out of Suvarnabhumi to Ho Chi Minh City. The next morning JAL had Business Class seats available on its 8:10am departure from Ho Chi Minh City up to Tokyo, arriving Narita at 4:00pm. This would leave me with a much more amenable two and a half hour layover prior to my flight to New York. An abundance of affordable hotels were available surrounding Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport and, as an added bonus, by flying with Vietnam Airlines I’d be one step closer to joining all of you who’ve logged flights on 200 or more airlines.

So then, here’s the plan: Depart New Haven, Connecticut on a bus up to Boston, take a couple of trains across the country, make a quick trip down to Colorado, then fly off across the Pacific to Southeast Asia via a First Class suite aboard Cathay Pacific. While in Asia I’ll check out a couple of First Class overnight trains and fly three never before flown upon airlines before returning back to the U.S. via a First Class suite aboard a Japan Airlines 777. My return back home to Alaska will be via North Carolina and Ketchikan before boarding the Alaska Marine Highway’s M.V. Columbia for a short cruise up Alaska’s Inside Passage to Juneau where a pair of Alaska 737s will deliver me back home to Fairbanks.

So - does this sound like something worth reading about? Keep in mind that for those of you unfamiliar with my reporting style here at FlyerTalk, my focus is on the transport, NOT all the usual things people typically like to read about such as where I went, what I did, who I met, where I stayed, etc. You want a typical travelogue about travel through Thailand and Laos - they’re a dime a dozen here at the Trip Report forum or by googling “Travelogue Thailand Laos”.

Additionally, the primary reason I don’t include airlines in my trip report title (such as “CX & JL First Class to Thailand and Back!”) is that I’m not one to do extremely detailed product description reports that include specific descriptions of every aspect of the lounge, the seat and the inflight product with dozens of pictures highlighting things like all of the lounge foods, the seat control buttons or a close-up of my IFE control set. While I recognize both the validity and popularity of this style of reporting, where I’m coming from is the simple joy of travel. As such, I acknowledge some things as part of the normal course of discovery – such as stuff that stood out about my First Class suite – but where others provide extreme detail via dozens of photos I tend toward just a few photos augmented with commentary and/or relevant memories.

So then, if after all these caveats you still want to tag along for the ride, might I suggest you grab a bottle (or two) of something tasty to drink and maybe a plate of canapés or a sandwich to tide you over. We’ve got a long way to go and only 57000 words to get there.

Alright then – ready? Let’s hit the road!

Last edited by Seat 2A; Oct 7, 18 at 10:01 pm
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Oct 7, 18, 9:23 pm
FlyerTalk Evangelist
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Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Million Miler, United Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond, Choice Hotels Diamond
Posts: 11,634
To be fair, the travel portion of this trip actually began the night before in Darien, Connecticut. I’d been visiting an old friend who lived in the nearby suburb of Tokeneke and I’d found that the best way for me to catch my Amtrak departure from Boston would be to catch the morning Megabus departure out of New Haven. Darien sits 40 miles south of New Haven, however, and my friend had to be off to work at 7:30 in the morning and so would be unable to give me a ride up to New Haven. As such, I determined that the best course of action would be for me to catch the Metro North commuter train up to New Haven and get a hotel for the night. Then I’d be well positioned to catch the 9:30 Megabus departure from New Haven’s Union Station the next morning.

My friend was more than willing to drive me up to New Haven the night before but I declined his kind offer as I wanted to check out the Metro North’s New Haven line train. It had been almost forty years since I’d last ridden this line and the current rolling stock was completely different from the old heavyweight cars operated by the New Haven Railroad back in the late 1970s.

And so it was that I caught the 9:30pm local up to New Haven. The new cars were brightly lit and spotlessly clean inside but their molded plastic seats were nowhere near as comfortable as the overstuffed foam rubber and fabric bench seats that were standard issue on the cars from 40 years ago.

Metro North’s commuter car on the New Haven Line

I found my overstuffed foam rubber and leather upholstered seat in the front of an aging Mercury Grand Marquis taxi that delivered me to my accommodation for the night – the Super 8 in South New Haven.

Day One
MegaBus New Haven, CT to Boston, MA 930a – 1125a
Amtrak First Class ~ Lake Shore Limited ~ Boston, MA to Chicago, IL ~ Dep. 1250p

Hot coffee and a complimentary copy of USA Today greeted me in the hotel lobby as I awaited my taxi. Once again, an aging Mercury Grand Marquis provided the motive power as my laconic driver drove me back to New Haven’s Union Station with nary a word.

I must say I was quite taken with New Haven’s Union Station. Designed by noted American architect Cass Gilbert (who also designed the Woolworth Building in New York as well as the U.S. Supreme Court Building), the beaux-arts style Union Station was completed and opened in 1920 after the previous Union Station was destroyed by fire. Like many stations of its era, New Haven’s Union Station fell into decline after World War II along with the rest of the railroad industry in North America. It was shuttered in 1972, leaving only the under-track 'subway' open for passengers. Despite having been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was almost demolished before being saved by the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project in the late 1970s. Following extensive renovations, the station reopened in 1985 and is now an impressive gateway to the city.

The “new” station features interior limestone walls, ornate ceilings, chandeliers and striking stainless steel ceilings in the tunnels to the trains. The large waiting room has thirty-five feet high ceilings and features models of trains on the tops of thebenches.

New Haven’s Union Station Waiting Room

Although Amtrak trains operate between New Haven and Boston, Amtrak’s website warned of track work between the two cities with delays of 45 minutes possible. It’s been my experience that the mere advance mention of delays bears the potential for delays considerably longer than advertised, so I decided to explore other options.

Megabus has been providing discounted bus travel since 2006. It operates throughout much of the United States and eastern Canada, offering fares as low as $1.00 for those who are able to purchase their tickets well in advance. I booked a bit too late to qualify for the $1.00 fare, but ultimately purchased a very affordable $11.00 ticket on a bus that would drop me off within two blocks of Boston’s South Station from whence my Amtrak train to Chicago would be departing.

After purchasing a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich inside the train station, I headed outside to await my bus. In order to keep costs down, Megabus does not operate out of bus terminals but instead picks up at curbside on public streets. In New Haven the Megabus stop was conveniently located at the end of the block on which the train station was located.

My bus pulled up about ten minutes early. There was no mistaking it with other city busses. Megabus uses the Van Hool TD925, a double deck coach that features a dramatic upper deck sky view rooftop. The bold blue Megabus livery made it instantly identifiable.

Megabus’ Van Hool TD925
Photo courtesy of Megabus

Megabus offers assigned seats, some of which are available at an additional fee depending upon location. I had paid an additional $3.00 for one of four seats at the downstairs table. Unfortunately, when I boarded the bus I found two of the seats were taken by a couple of girls who had spread out their laptops and papers all over the table. It looked like more trouble than not to add my laptop and papers to theirs and, since there were plenty of other seats available, I settled into an empty row nearby.

As for the bus ride north to Boston, what can I say? Megabus made the experience more pleasant by providing convenient electrical outlets at each seat, free Wi-Fi and fairly comfortable reclining seats with ample leg room. I was also impressed with the size of the lower deck restroom which was wheelchair accessible. I read on the Megabus website that one could even watch dozens of free TV shows and movies with Megabus’ RIDE app though I never utilized this service given the short hour and a half ride.

Alighting from the bus on a sunny morning in Boston, I made my way over to the South Station and followed the signs to the First Class lounge. Properly named the Acela First Class Lounge, it is located on the mezzanine level just above the ticketing area. The receptionist inspected my tickets and, seeing that I was a First Class passenger aboard Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, welcomed me into the lounge. I placed my roll-a-bord in a nearby storage area and then took a few minutes to check out the facility.

Boston’s Acela First Class Lounge
Photo courtesy of Lake Contracting

Boston’s Acela First Class Lounge
Photo courtesy of Lake Contracting

Boston’s Acela First Class Lounge
Photo courtesy of Lake Contracting

I was immediately impressed with this stylish lounge – its high, ornate ceilings contrasted nicely with modern, minimalist furniture accenting a spacious layout. Large windows provided a great view of the station hall below. A small selection of snacks (goldfish crackers and mini pretzels along with individually packaged portions of Sarah Lee pastries) was available along with coffee, sodas and a selection of local newspapers. The center of the club features three TV's while the perimeter has desks, small tables and chairs for those who prefer a quieter setting. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the lounge.

While all of this was very nice, this lounge still falls well short of most good airline lounges. It could really benefit from a proper bar – perhaps one that’s open from say 12:00pm through 8:00pm – along with a proper business area outfitted with individual desks and electrical outlets.

I don’t recall if a boarding announcement was ever made in the lounge. I did find out that despite our 12:50pm departure, no luncheon would be served upon out departure from Boston. This is because the dining car comes up on the main train from New York which we’ll meet and connect to at Albany early this evening. As such, I stopped by a Mexican food kiosk down on the station floor and purchased a made to order chicken and black bean burrito with all the extras. A bottle of ice water completed my purchase and, now properly prepared, I made my way out the doors leading down the platform to Track 8. Along the way I paused to admire the Acela train parked next door on Track 7.

Amtrak’s Acela awaits passengers at Boston

My View-Liner sleeping car was located at the end of the train, next to the café/lounge car. Though it required a longer walk to get to it, I appreciated the distance between it and the locomotive which was required to whistle at all road crossings. The farther back the car, the quieter your ride will be.

Walking down the platform alongside Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited

Amtrak’s View-Liner equipment is used only on eastern routes. Bi-Level Superliner equipment is used aboard all long distance trains operating west and south of Chicago. Superliner equipment is not used back east because the older overpasses and tunnels are not high enough to accommodate the higher cars. The one exception to this is the Superliner equipped Capitol Limited which runs on the old B&O line between Chicago and Washington DC.

As I approached the entrance to my car, I was greeted and welcomed aboard by the car attendant, Terrell, who relieved me of my bag and showed me to my accommodations in roomette #4. The hallway was quite narrow and, with its white metal walls and bright overhead lighting, downright utilitarian.

Narrow hallway aboard Amtrak’s View-Liner

I last rode Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited twenty-six years ago back in 1992. Back then, coach was the only accommodation for me but then my excitement at the pure joy of travel combined with a less arthritic back made sleeping in the coach seats a simple affair.

Over the years, I’ve come to really appreciate the benefits of a horizontal sleeping surface aboard trains – not to mention the privacy afforded by my own personal accommodations. Additionally, I’ve become fairly adept at maximizing my benefits in Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program. As such it was fairly simple to accrue the 37000 points required to book First Class accommodations for this trip from Boston to Seattle via Chicago and San Francisco.

Amtrak’s View-Liner cars offer a variety of accommodations ranging from Roomettes to Deluxe Bedrooms. Handicap accessible rooms are also available. Roomettes, though compact and snug, work well for one person and, because they have a drop down upper bunk, are suitable for two. The View-Liner roomettes differ from those on the Superliner in that they have an additional set of windows for those in the upper bunks. During the day when the beds aren’t set up, those windows allow in lots of wonderful natural light, not to mention extra view. Additionally, View-Liner roomettes include an ensuite sink and toilet, features not found on the Superliners except in the deluxe bedrooms and handicapped rooms. My car was named Chicopee River. Amtrak provides a virtual tour of its roomettes right HERE. Check it out!

Amtrak’s View-Liner Roomette

Amtrak’s View-Liner Roomette

Accommodations are snug

Once everyone had boarded, Terrell stopped by each room to provide any further assistance with or answer any questions about our accommodations. As an added surprise, he also distributed pre-wrapped sandwiches and chips. We were offered a choice of roast beef, turkey or ham – all of which included cheese and the usual sandwich veggies. I was tempted to take one but with my big burrito ready to eat and plenty of food available once we were underway, I couldn’t imagine when I’d ever get around to eating it so I passed.

Although we wouldn’t be adding the diner until after Albany, Terrell also took dinner reservations for our sleeper. Although he’d been informed that the complete consist was not heavily booked out of Albany, Terrell still recommended eating sooner rather than later as some of the more popular entrée items such as the New York Steak tended to sell out later in the evening. I chose to heed Terrell’s advice and made a reservation for the 6:45pm seating. I was handed a small card indicating the reservation time, and then settled back into the large padded seat in my roomette and watched as we accelerated out of the station and glided through the Boston suburbs.

It’s a twenty-one hour, 960 mile journey from Boston across to Chicago. If you’re in a hurry, take a plane. Travel by train, especially if you’ve purchased sleeper accommodations, is a great way to enjoy seeing the country you’re traveling through rather than over while ensconced in a comfortable seat amidst spacious accommodations. The pace is relaxed and there’ll be plenty of opportunity to share the excitement with your fellow travelers while sitting down to a meal in the diner or enjoying drinks and conversation in the lounge car.

The scenery between Boston and Worcester is pleasant though hardly dramatic. Much of the rail corridor immediately west of Boston is surrounded by trees, so I spent the first hour of this trip savoring my burrito while perusing the latest edition of Trains Magazine which I’d purchased at a news agency in Boston. I also had a copy of the latest Passenger Train Journal which I’d purchased earlier in the week in Connecticut.

Reading is a great way to pass time on a long journey, regardless of transport type. After I’d finished lunch, I converted my seats into a flatbed for a more comfortable reading surface. This was accomplished by pushing a small pedal at the base of each seat and pushing the backrest down. Most passengers ring the car attendant for this service but, after one hundred plus trips on Amtrak, I’ve become pretty familiar with the workings of these cars.

Comfortably stretched out in Amtrak’s View-Liner Roomette

By the way, it’s worth mentioning here that the Lake Shore Limited is the descendant of the New York Central Railroad’s train of the same name, along with the 20th Century Limited that plied this very same route. In its day the 20th Century Limited was considered one of the finest trains in America – much less the world. When Amtrak took over most passenger services from American railroads in 1971, the system wide standardization of services resulted in an overall product that was good but considerably less extravagant than that experienced aboard the great trains such the 20th Century or Santa Fe’s Super Chief. As a result, some railroads did not allow Amtrak to use the names of their legacy trains and I suspect that may have been the case here. No matter – the Lake Shore Limited still traverses the same route as the 20th Century Limited, following some of the nation’s most beautiful shorelines. After rolling through the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, the train continues through the Finger Lakes district, along the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal and then past portions of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.

Arriving into Albany about ten minutes early, we spent about 40 minutes at the station while the New York section was added to our train. I took advantage of the break to take a stroll down the platform along the length of the train.

Trackside at Albany

We had just departed Albany when the announcement was made for passengers holding 6:45pm dinner reservations to head up to the diner. I tucked in my shirt, ran a brush through my hair and made my way forward. Since the diner was part of the New York section that had been added to the front of the train, I had to make my way through six cars to get to it.

Seating in Amtrak’s diners is communal and, as a dining car steward once put it – you’ll start out as strangers but you may end up as friends. As a single passenger, the steward had no problem finding me a seat at a table with Jim and Holly, a couple from Mt. Kisco, New York who were traveling to Kenosha, Wisconsin for a friend’s wedding. They hadn’t planned on taking the train but the airfare between all of the New York City area airports and either Milwaukee or Chicago was so expensive on their preferred days of travel that they’d decided to look into other options. A friend had recommended they check out Amtrak and had sweetened the deal by offering them an Amtrak Companion Coupon, good for a free companion fare with the purchase of one regular fare ticket. The total fare for both of them was less than a third of what they would have paid had they flown. With lower airfares available on the return, they’d be flying home.

I am sorry to report that the Lake Shore Limited’s once fine full-service dining car had been removed in favor of a combination café/diner/lounge car. An unfortunate reality for Amtrak is that it has never once generated a system wide profit in its 47 year history. It relies heavily on government subsidies from an increasingly reluctant congress. Management is experimenting with a modified meal service on some of its shorter eastern trains and evidently the Lake Shore Limited is one of them. The menu we were presented was a mere shell of the full menu that used to be offered aboard this train. Where once the Lake Shore’s passengers enjoyed meals freshly prepared and served from an onboard kitchen, they must now choose from meals that are pre-cooked and reheated via microwave in the café. Here’s a link to the current MENU.

We all ordered the beef short ribs. Unlike Amtrak’s long distance full service dining car meals, these meals did not include a side salad or even a basket of rolls. While the short ribs were tasty enough, in terms of portion size they were similar to one of those Healthy Choice dinner entrees found in the frozen food section at your local supermarket. For all I know, Amtrak may very well have contracted with an outfit like Healthy Choice to purchase these cheap mass-produced meals. What a shame, as a good meal aboard a train rolling through the countryside has always been one of life’s great travel experiences.

After dinner, I headed back to my roomette. Although it was still early, the “lounge car” was full. Rather than a separate lounge such as you’d find aboard Amtrak’s Superliner trains, the “lounge” on this train was essentially the opposite end of the café/diner/lounge car. Seating was four rows of buffet style tables and seats and all of those were occupied. Less expensive meals such as hot and cold sandwiches were available for purchase from the café and the lounge also served as the dining area for those purchases.

Terrell stopped by to ask when I’d like to have my bed prepared and – since I was already stretched out atop the bare seat mattresses – I said why not now? Amtrak’s bedding is essentially a 2 1/2” deep mattress made up with sheets and blankets. It’s actually pretty comfortable to sleep atop, although I prefer to bring my own blanket.

I love a good book and so the time passed quickly as we sped through the ever darkening evening. After reading a few chapters and stifling more than a few yawns I noticed the time was approaching 11:00pm. It had been a long day and so I turned off my reading light and slept comfortably through the night.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Oct 17, 18 at 12:15 pm
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:26 pm
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Day Two
Amtrak First Class ~ Lake Shore Limited ~ Enroute through Ohio, Indiana & Illinois ~ Arr. 1010a
Amtrak First Class ~ California Zephyr ~ Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA ~ Dep. 230p

When I awoke we were cruising along at what felt like the maximum allowable speed of 79 mph. We dashed past fields as trees and telephone poles flashed by. Way up ahead I could hear the distant wail of the horn as we sped past the flashing lights and clanging bells of various road crossings. It felt really cool to be lying in bed feeling the vibrations associated with our high speed transit while watching the land rush by and at the same time listening to the unrelenting clickety clack as we raced down the tracks.

It was approaching 7:30am and if I didn’t get going soon I’d miss the last call for breakfast. We’d been advised the night before that the sit down service would end after 8:00am so that the crew could prepare for our arrival into Chicago. The café however would continue to serve until 8:30am.

Eh – what’s the rush? I’m on vacation here. I can always buy a sandwich in the café or later at Chicago’s Union Station. In the meantime, complimentary coffee and juice were available in the service area of my car. Additionally, I had a couple of granola bars stashed somewhere in my daypack. That’d get me started. That – and a hot shower.

I was just getting ready to pad down to the service area for that first cup of coffee when Terrell stopped by with a cheerful “Good Morning”. He said it would take him less than two minutes to convert my roomette to its daytime configuration, so I threw on some lounge pants and left him to it while heading down the hall to fetch that coffee. A shower followed about a half hour later and as things ultimately played out I was satisfied enough with my comfortable seat, coffee and granola bars that I decided against the six-car long trek up to the one working café/lounge car.

Arrival into Chicago was on a sunny but otherwise blustery day. I watched as the wind blew through the distant trees, thankful for the warmth of my climate controlled roomette. We pulled into Union Station about five minutes early and once again I was faced with a long walk down the length of the train to get into the arrivals area. Terrell helped me off with my bag and, having noticed my uneven gait throughout the trip, asked if I’d like a ride into the station on the electric cart. Sure, why not?

I thanked Terrell for his fine service and left him with a nice tip. Given the minimal amount of service I typically require in the sleeping car, I usually tip about $10 to $15 per day for sleeping car attendants but since all I had in my wallet were some twenties and a couple of ones, Terrell got the big tip. I suppose I could’ve asked for change but he really did do a great job and as one who works in a tip-able capacity and has enjoyed many a $20.00 gratuity on my job, well, if only for the benefit of good karma I reckon it’s good to return the favor now and then. My pair of spare one dollar bills went to the cart attendant who was kind enough to drop me off at the entrance to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge.

This lounge opened in June of 2016 and as with other Metropolitan Lounges is available to sleeping car and Business Class passengers only. Though not as ornate as its counterparts in Boston and Washington DC, it’s a considerable improvement over this station’s old Metropolitan Lounge with its low ceilings, pale green carpet and beige chairs. This new lounge is also more than twice the size of the old lounge at 13,500 square-feet with seating for 360. Here are a couple of pictures from the Amtrak website which look much better than mine.

Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge
Photo courtesy of Amtrak

Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge
Photo courtesy of Amtrak

Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge
Photo courtesy of Amtrak

An Amtrak customer service representative inspected my ticket and welcomed me in. Baggage storage was available but unlike the old lounge was not in a staffed facility. You simply leave your bag in an open dedicated storage room and hope for the best. Of course, this approach is standard in most airline lounges but the difference is that they are on the other side of security. Still, I elected to roll the dice and take my chances, a decision which ultimately worked out just fine.

My first attempt at visiting this lounge was last year. Unfortunately, upon entering I discovered that my wallet was missing. It had either fallen out of my daypack or was pickpocketed (likely the former) but either way I was left with nothing but a train ticket and $1.25 in my pocket along with First Class tickets on a train departing in less than an hour. The result of that situation was that I spent the rest of my visit to Union Station trying to see if my wallet had been turned in (Good luck with that! ) and chatting with the police. Ultimately, I boarded my train (where meals were included) and when I went through Denver the next morning I was met by my nephew who brought me $300.00 and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Just the basics, thanks!

This time things went much better. A quick inspection of the lounge revealed two levels offering a variety of rooms and seating areas, some with high ceilings and large picture windows that provided a view directly into Union Station’s Great Hall. Modern light fixtures had replaced the uninspired recessed can lighting of the old lounge, and a variety of comfortable chairs and sofas provided much improved seating. An island in the food service area was stocked with fresh vegetables, cheese and the usual Amtrak packaged snacks. A wine tasting was offered later in the afternoon. Clean and spacious bathrooms were located down a side hallway and I was told that a shower room was also available though I did not take advantage of it.

I had no plans to meet anybody during my four hour layover, but I did have one chore I needed to accomplish. With a fifty-two hour train ride ahead of me, alcohol would be required. Across the street from Union Station is a CVS Pharmacy where beer and/or spirits can be purchased at very affordable prices. Now certainly, Amtrak sells liquor on board, but at fairly inflated prices. A single 50ml bottle of liquor will set you back $7.50. Throw in a $1 tip per transaction and three daily cocktails will cost you just over $25.00. Meanwhile, a 750ml bottle of Jack Daniels purchased at CVS can be had for just $29.00 with tax (less if it’s on sale) and that breaks down to fifteen 50ml cocktails for considerably less than the aggregate cost on Amtrak. That said, I’ve had many a trip where I’ve left as much as half an unfinished bottle of whisky behind in my room. No matter – I’ve still come out ahead compared to buying drinks individually.

In any event, I decided to have lunch first and so walked a couple of blocks to a nearby Chipotle Mexican Grill up on Monroe and Clinton. Afterwards, I stopped by the CVS, purchased my whisky and a couple sleeves of mixed nuts, and then made my way back to Union Station to await departure of my train – the westbound California Zephyr.

* * * _  _ * * *

The California Zephyr is far and away my favorite train in the Amtrak system. The name alone suggests a gentle Western breeze carrying you all the way out to The Promised Land. For many folks, this is a prospect as comforting as it is exciting. By comparison, an airline flight between Chicago and San Francisco provides a seat aboard a nameless Boeing or Airbus. Indeed, when it comes to train names, the railroads have it all over the airlines. I mean, consider the prospect of a trip aboard the “Twentieth Century Limited”, the “City of New Orleans” or the “Coast Starlight” as opposed to a ride on an “Airbus” or a “767 Luxuryliner” upon which debatable luxury is extended to only a small fraction of its total passengers. A ride on a train can be an integral and enjoyable part of the journey whereas a flight on a plane is usually just that - a flight.

My first ever long distance train ride came aboard the original California Zephyr back in 1969. I was on my way from Denver to a river rafting camp outside of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The Zephyr was in its final year of independent operation prior to the nationalization of the nation’s passenger railroads and the arrival of Amtrak. The six hour 190 mile ride up through the Rocky Mountains and the canyons of the Colorado River was a magical experience that only served to reinforce in me a passion for train travel that still burns hot to this day.

The original California Zephyr climbing into the Rocky Mountains

Since that memorable day in 1969, I’ve logged an additional 23 rides totaling over 35000 miles specifically aboard the California Zephyr. To me the major attraction of this train is the spectacular landscape it travels through. I can think of no other long distance train in North America – including Canada’s famous streamliner The Canadian – that offers such stunning and varied mountain scenery along its route. Be it the rolling plains of the Midwest to the dramatic mountains and canyons of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and California’s Sierras, the California Zephyr has it all.

Here is a map of the Zephyr’s route:

The route of the California Zephyr

I should note here that because I’ve ridden the California Zephyr and Coast Starlight so many times before, I have at least a couple hundred photos from past trips. Rather than add more pictures that would be essentially near duplicates of those I already have, my focus for this trip was more toward enjoying the ride than taking pictures. As such, most of the pictures I’ll use for this part of the trip will have been taken from other rides aboard these two trains. The scenery and even the weather conditions depicted will be almost identical to what I experienced on this trip.

Boarding for the California Zephyr was announced in the lounge about twenty minutes prior to departure. An electric cart was made available for those who might need it, while an Amtrak employee would provide an escort from the lounge directly out to the train. Amtrak sleeping car accommodations are popular with elderly travelers, many of whom have infirmities that are well served by the electric cart service. The initial cart filled up fast with the promise that another would be along shortly. Meanwhile, the escorted group was ready to make their way out to the train so I just got in line with them and hobbled along on out to the train.

Sleeper cars are located toward the front of the train on most of Amtrak’s bi-level Superliners and today’s train was no exception. I found myself wishing I’d waited for that second or third cart after all as we were led past three coaches, the Sightseer Lounge Car, the dining car and two sleepers before arriving at my car, the 532 Sleeper.

California Zephyr – All Aboard!

Standing at the door with a clipboard bearing the passenger manifest was my car attendant Maria. She had a pretty face and a ready smile as she checked my name against her manifest and then welcomed me aboard. As we stepped into the downstairs entry area, she offered to take my bag and show me to my room. I thanked her for the offer but let her know that I was a veteran of many rides aboard Amtrak’s Superliners – enough so that my assigned room - #11, located downstairs and to the left – was actually my longtime favorite aboard Amtrak’s Superliners.

Roomette 11 – First door on the left

Each Amtrak bi-level Superliner Sleeper is outfitted with 14 Roomettes, 5 Deluxe bedrooms, 1 Family bedroom and one Handicapped bedroom. Four roomettes along with the Family and Handicapped bedrooms are located downstairs. Although most people are excited about the prospect of a seat or bedroom high on the upper level of Amtrak’s Superliner fleet, I prefer 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. 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 down closer to the tracks.

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 2’ 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 three nights.

At my seat were two big fluffy pillows and two hangars. 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, Amtrak’s excellent magazine The National and a brochure describing the train and its various services and attractions. Also provided was a safety card much like you’d see aboard an airliner.

Roomette in daytime configuration

I hung my jacket and then grabbed my camera and stepped off the train for a couple of photos. Train travel is exciting stuff with plenty of sights, sounds and smells to stimulate the senses. Amtrak’s bi-level Superliner cars are huge, towering above those of us standing down on the platform.

Huge Superliner Car

Stepping back onboard the train, I headed upstairs to take a few pictures of the upper level facilities and accommodations. The best time to take pictures onboard a train is when it’s standing in the station. There’s no vibration which definitely contributes to some better quality photographs.

At the top of the stairway is the service area for each car. In the morning, juice and coffee are available from this area. Ice is occasionally available depending upon the car attendant, although they’ll always be happy to bring you some upon request as well.

Service Area

On one end of the upper level are ten more roomettes. On the opposite end are the deluxe bedrooms. I paused to take a picture of one.

Deluxe Bedroom

Returning downstairs to the lower level, I fired off a couple of photos of the family bedroom and the shower room.

Family Bedroom

Shower Suite

Shower Suite

As more passengers continued to board, I headed back to my roomette and began to prepare for the long journey ahead. I unpacked my blanket, kicked off my shoes, rearranged my pillows to provide some enhanced lumbar support and then pulled out my book and one of the magazines. Now comfortably ensconced with my seat nicely reclined, I settled in and awaited our departure.

It wasn’t long before the “All Aboard!” call rang out, the doors were closed, the step stools stowed and with a slight shudder we slowly accelerated out of the station. Emeryville was 2440 miles to the west, 52 hours away.

* * * _  _ * * *

Rather than get into a mile by mile accounting of all the enroute scenery through Illinois and Iowa, I’m going to instead focus on the onboard experience of riding First Class on the Zephyr.

Shortly after we’d rolled through the Chicago suburb of Naperville, the dining car steward - a rather brusque no-nonsense type named Jesse - came through the sleeping cars taking dinner reservations. Due to popular demand, dinner is always by reservation on Amtrak’s diners. Luncheon occasionally is if the passenger load warrants it while breakfast is always first come first served.

Aside from the privacy of your own compartment and a bed to sleep on, the best thing about traveling First Class on Amtrak is that all meals in the dining car are included in the fare. This means you may order anything you want, from the most expensive steak dinner to a side of breakfast meat with your morning omelet. Dessert and non-alcoholic beverages are also included. Beer and wine are extra, however.

Dinner tonight was offered in three settings – 5:30pm, 6:15pm and 7:00pm. There’s also a last call at about 7:45pm for anyone that for whatever reason didn’t make one of the first two seatings. This includes people who boarded late in places like Burlington, Iowa. I opted for the 7:00pm seating and was handed a voucher with the time written on it. I’ve never had anyone demand to see that voucher upon my arrival in the dining car but Jesse’s demeanor suggested I’d better not lose it and I’d better be on time.

Scheduling of the California Zephyr is designed to provide passengers with optimal viewing of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains during daylight hours. The plains states and the deserts of Utah and Eastern Nevada are crossed at night. Although many consider the scenery between Chicago and Denver boring, I’ve always been impressed by the many picturesque hamlets we passed while rolling through western Illinois. These settlements reminded me of folk art pictures of life in the 1800s. I’ve not seen anything quite like them anywhere else in America. Thanks to the longer days of late spring, the sun sat low in the sky as we crossed a 2000 foot bridge over the Mississippi River. During the winter months darkness obscures this view.

Iowa wetlands at sunset

Shortly after seven, the call rang out over the train’s PA system advising those with 7:00pm dinner reservations to please make their way forward to the diner. I put my shoes on, dragged a brush through my hair and my way to the diner located two cars back.

Amtrak Superliner Dining Car

I was initially seated at a table by myself but was soon joined by Horst and Michael, two guys from Germany who were traveling around America on a rail pass. The fourth seat remained empty as did two empty tables across from us. Clearly, most passengers had opted to eat earlier. I generally do as well but I’d had a late lunch in Chicago and given that this was the first of two nights on the train I wasn’t worried about any food items running out.

California Zephyr Menu

Menus were presented and I was thankful to see that some of the culinary austerity measures implemented by current Amtrak president Richard Anderson (Formerly of Delta Airlines) have not yet been seen on the long distance western trains. Hopefully they never will. I was also pleased to see that this menu incorporated some new dishes previously unseen aboard Amtrak diners. One of the downsides to Amtrak’s menus is that they haven’t really changed much over the past fifteen years. Breakfast, lunch and dinner have all revolved around the same four or five main courses with only a few regional exceptions, such as those offered aboard trains like the Coast Starlight or the City of New Orleans. This menu however offered some nice new dishes such as the Chef’s Special of Indian Spiced Shrimp Biryani or a vegetarian option of Butternut Squash Risotto. I applaud this culinary diversity and can only hope that it might contribute to enhancing the overall quality of travel aboard Amtrak enough so that people might spread the word and consider riding the train more often.

While guys like me who actually like the slower, relaxed pace of rail travel will always find a way to enjoy the trip regardless of food options, for many others a meal in the dining car goes a long way toward breaking up what for them is the monotony of rail travel. Be it a good meal or the social interaction of the shared travel experience, dinner in the diner is one of life’s great travel experiences.

So overall I think this is a good menu offering a decent variety of foods. The prices do seem a bit high relative to portion size, though. Case in point would be the Thyme Roasted Chicken Breast. It used to be that $18-22.00 would get you an entire half chicken. I saw one of the wait staff pass by with a chicken breast dinner and it didn’t look all that large. The steak is only about 8oz and for $14.00 more, all you get with the Land & Sea entrée is a 3” wide crab cake. I was thankful that the cost of the meals was included in my fare. Alas, Horst and Michael were not as lucky as they were traveling in the coach section. Then again, Michael explained that given the value of the Euro against our U.S. dollar and compared to what they would have paid for similar fare aboard a European train, these prices were not so bad.

I had tried the Surf & Turf option while riding the Empire Builder last year and had found the crab cake to be a bit bland by my tastes. This time around I went with my old stand-by - a simple steak accompanied by a side salad and an iced tea. Horst ordered the Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger from the luncheon menu while Michael opted for the Norwegian Salmon. It’s worth noting here that both the Black Bean and the Angus Beef burgers can be ordered as dinner entrées. They are the only items off the luncheon menu that can. Horst knew this from prior experience aboard Amtrak’s Capitol Limited which the guys had traveled aboard from Washington, DC into Chicago three days earlier.

I always enjoy trading travel stories and experiences with others and it’s harder to imagine a nicer setting than tonight’s dinner table as we sped westward through the twilight of a pretty evening in east-central Iowa. Horst and Michael had both grown up outside of Hamburg in northern Germany. They had known each other since their teenage years and were making their first big trip outside of Europe. Well, at least Michael was. Horst had been to Canada and America once before with his parents back in the late nineties, but as he was only eight years old at the time it felt like another lifetime, especially since he had little to no say in their day to day activities.

My salad was delivered, along with a basket of dinner rolls. I was pleased to see the salad included onions, tomatoes and croutons. Our conversation continued while I buttered a roll and applied a packet of Paul Newman’s zesty olive oil and Balsamic vinegar dressing to my salad. The guys were heading to Colorado for five days and then continuing on to California where they’d rent a car for a week and drive to Yosemite National Park and then down to Las Vegas before returning the car in Los Angeles. Michael explained that their original plan had been to drive California’s famous Highway 1 through Big Sur and on down the coast to LA but last May a huge landslide had deposited about six million tons of rock and dirt along a quarter mile section of the coastal highway in the Big Sur region and the highway was still closed.

From Los Angeles they’d booked seats on the Coast Starlight up to Seattle where they’d rented another car for a week of as yet undetermined travel around the region. They were thinking about the possibility of driving up to Canada. I recommended a drive around the Olympic Peninsula and/or perhaps a visit to Mt. Rainier National Park, but I assured them that the entire area is pretty enough that they’d have a great drive whichever route they took.

Our meals were presented and we wasted no time in tucking right into them. My steak was perfectly cooked, nicely flavored on the outside and reddish-pink throughout the inside. Michael’s salmon looked pretty good as well while Horst’s Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger never fails to please. It is my favorite luncheon entrée, typically made that much tastier with the addition of a side of bacon.

The Amtrak Signature Steak

Dessert offerings included a chocolate raspberry tart with whipped cream, a pecan tart similarly adorned or a Greek yogurt cheesecake with a cinnamon graham cracker crust. They all sounded delicious but – diminutive 8oz steak notwithstanding – I was satisfyingly sated. So too were my dinner companions. I must be getting old because years ago I could have polished off a 16oz steak with salad bar, a full sized baked potato and dessert. Oddly enough, when flying International First Class I tend to eat a lot more – not so much because I’m any hungrier but rather because I want to try out as much as possible.

As dinner came to a conclusion, we discussed heading back to the lounge car for a bit. I have thousands of pictures from my travels loaded onto my laptop, including many from my drives around the American West. Given some of the driving that Michael and Horst had coming up along with a couple of suggestions I had that might enhance their travels (such as driving from Yosemite to Las Vegas via US 395 and Death Valley National Park rather than their projected route via Interstate 5), I asked if they’d be interested in seeing any pictures from some of the areas they might potentially be driving through. They were. It was only about 8:00pm and with the lounge car located just one car back, I suggested we meet there in ten minutes as I had to fetch my laptop (and Jack Daniels) which were back in my roomette.

Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge cars are the finest modern day railroad lounge cars I have ever traveled in. In terms of lounges open to the general public, they are substantially better than anything I’ve ever experienced in Europe, Australia, Asia or South America. In fact, out of those aforementioned countries, Australia is the only whose trains even provided a dedicated lounge car on any of its trains.

Large glass windows along the sidewalls start at knee level and rise up a good five feet or so. Along the outside edges of the ceiling, curving down to the wall, are more large panes. Be it daylight or starlight, the view available through all that glass is impressive. This is especially true in mountainous terrain where the upper windows allow excellent viewing of the peaks or canyon walls above the train. Individual seats and small couches are available on one side of the car, while buffet style table seating is available on the other. In the middle of the lounge is a stairway leading down to a snack bar offering a wide variety of sandwiches, light meals, snack foods and beverages. More tables are also available down here.

Passengers enjoying the view in the lounge car

A close up of the swivel seats

Half of the upper deck is buffet seating

We found an empty booth at one end of the lounge. Each of these booths are outfitted with a/c outlets and good overhead lighting. On my way up to the lounge from my car, I had asked for a glass with ice from the dining car staff. As I discreetly poured myself a glass of whisky from my glass of as yet unopened Jack Daniels, I asked Horst and Michael if they’d like some. They both declined in favor of beers. Amtrak serves Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as its regional craft beer and they’d both liked it a lot during their trip from Washington DC to Chicago. That’s high praise coming from two citizens of a country as highly regarded for its beer brewing prowess as Germany. For many years mainstream American beer was some the weakest most watery swill on the planet. These days we have over 6000 microbrews – some of them as good as any beer on the planet. When I was in Australia last year I was surprised at how many Australians were unfamiliar with American beers outside of Budweiser and Miller. I say now to one and all visitors to our fair shores – it’s safe and worthwhile to try American beers again. Cheers!

Time flies when you’re having fun and before long it was time to call it a night. I had a good time chatting with Horst and Michael and hopefully provided them with some additional ideas and more importantly the confidence to get off the interstates and onto the smaller roads where the heart of American scenery and culture beats far stronger.

I arrived back at my compartment to find that Maria had already reconfigured it for nighttime use. The mattress was neatly laid out with blanket and pillows ready to go. The lower bunk mattresses measure 28” wide by about 6’6” long. The mattresses are not particularly thick and yet I’ve always slept really well on them, with the operative words being “on them”. I don’t get under the sheets and blanket. On a smaller mattress like that, getting under the sheets is too confining for me. I prefer to sleep under my big wool blanket which has plenty of space beneath it and keeps me supremely comfortable.

Amtrak’s Roomette Lower Bunk

I was thankful to see that Maria had also replenished my water bottles, one of which I opened to use for brushing my teeth. The car was comfortably cool but even so I turned my thermostat to its lowest setting before crawling under my big wool blanket. Amtrak’s roomettes have plenty of lights including a good bright reading light which can be adjusted. I polished off a couple chapters from my book of the week before turning the lights off and calling it a night.

I love being able to lie down in my own bed aboard a train that’s speeding through the night. It’s a very sensory experience where you can hear as well as feel the rhythmic cadence of your car’s motion as it rolls down the tracks. The occasional distant wail of the locomotive’s whistle is a lullaby that in combination with the aforementioned motion related sensations combines to create an environment surprisingly conducive to sleep. Here’s hoping that all of you who have read this far will get to experience this same luxury someday.
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:27 pm
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Day Three
Amtrak First Class ~ California Zephyr ~ Enroute through Colorado & Utah

Because I was set to meet fellow FlyerTalker HawaiiTrvlr during the Zephyr’s 45 minute layover in Denver, I’d set my alarm to go off at 6:45am. A hot shower was just a few feet down the hall, after which coffee and orange juice were available at the top of the stairs. What a great way to travel! Only a First Class suite aboard an Emirates or Etihad A380 would offer similar amenities inflight.

It was a bright, sunny day as we backed into Denver’s Union Station. Looking around at the old brick buildings surrounding the railyards, I couldn’t help but muse on how far this station has come over the years…

The first Union Station was first built in 1881 at a cost of $525,000.00. At the time, it was the largest building in Colorado. In 1894, a fire destroyed most of that station. It was quickly rebuilt employing more stone than wood and, other than the loss of its clock tower in 1914, remains essentially unchanged today. While not on the scale of New York’s Grand Central Station, Denver’s Union Station is still an architecturally classic railroad station built in the Beaux Arts style. Like many big city railroad stations, it is indeed a monument to not just train travel but transportation in general, reflecting an era when travel in any form was an exciting and adventurous endeavor.

Back in the 1920s and 30s, Union Station served up to eighty passenger trains a day. Up until 1958, the station served more travelers than Denver’s Stapleton Airport. Ah, but then jets and Interstate Highways arrived in Denver and rail service to the Mile High City, like elsewhere in the nation, began a slow but steady decline.

Over the next thirty years, the station suffered from neglect and disinterest as train departures dwindled to just two per day. The station was almost torn down in the mid-Eighties! Thankfully, the revitalization of Denver’s Lower Downtown District, or LoDo, has made great inroads towards cleaning up once dirty and dangerous areas, resulting in the return of shops, hotels and visitors to the area. Coors Field, home of baseball’s Rockies, is located just a short walk from Union Station. The city also brought together a team of architects, engineers, urban designers and transportation experts known as the "Union Station Alliance" and charged them with transforming Union Station into a regional transportation center that would serve buses, light rail and Amtrak.

The newly refurbished Union Station opened two years ago and - to the men and women of the "Union Station Alliance" - I’d like to say Congratulations on a job well done! ^^ I’ve been in a lot of train stations all over the world and I have to say that Denver’s Union Station is the nicest of the medium sized ones that I’ve ever been in. The new station features a variety of upscale restaurants and bars as well as an onsite hotel – The Crawford – that unfortunately is a bit too upscale for my budget. Rooms start at over $300.00 per night.

Unfortunately my camera was too small to capture the true grandeur of the refurbished station, so HERE IS A WEBPAGE that provides some great photos of the transit portion of the station. Additionally, I’ve found a few pictures on the internet that present inside of the station beautifully:

Denver’s Union Station from Wynkoop Street
Photo courtesy of Denver.org

Denver’s Union Station Great Hall
Photo courtesy of Denverinfill.com

Denver’s Union Station Great Hall
Photo courtesy of Denverinfill.com

Denver’s Union Station Great Hall
Photo courtesy of Denverinfill.com

Denver’s Union Station looking toward Downtown Denver
Photo courtesy of Denver.org

Alighting from the train, I paused to take a couple a couple of my own photos – one of my car trackside and the other of the iconic clock and orange lettering exhorting us to “Travel By Train”. That clock and letters have been part of Union Station as long as I’ve been alive and it’s nice to see that they’re still featured so prominently on the new station. By my reckoning, they are indeed a Denver landmark.

Trackside at Denver’s Union Station

The famous clock and Travel by Train sign

As I strolled down the platform towards the station, I met up with HawaiiTrvlr who’d made his way out to the train. This is one of the nice things about train travel that is no longer available to air travelers – meeting your friends at the train. I remember when I was a kid that friends and family not only came down to the airport departure gate to see us off, but occasionally they were even allowed on board the aircraft as well. Of course back in those days most flights were only half full and most passengers only brought hats and coats onboard.

In any event, it was nice to see HawaiiTrvlr again. We first got together earlier this year at a restaurant/bar fittingly located beneath the old control tower that once served Denver’s Stapleton International Airport. HT’s been a longtime reader of my trip reports and it’s always nice to enjoy quick get together with fellow FTers since I don’t generally attend the Do’s.

HT and I ordered coffee and pastries from the Pig Train Coffee Company. We had about twenty minutes to chat before it was time to head back to the train. An underground walkway leads from the station to a choice of three or four tracks on the backside of the building. We took an elevator up to my track and I was able to provide a brief tour of my accommodations aboard my car. Then the engineer gave two short toots of his horn signaling that departure was imminent, so I bid farewell to HT until next time and made my way forward to the dining car as we slowly eased through the Denver yards and out into the northwestern suburbs.

I’ve always been a big fan of breakfast, and to be enjoying it aboard a train on a beautiful sunny day made the meal all that much nicer. Jesse, the brusque dining car steward I’d met the night before, was seating diners and I asked for and was assigned a table on the left hand side. Perusing the menu , I quickly settled on hot coffee, orange juice and an omelet with a side of 100 calorie chicken sausage. Honestly, I don’t know why I even bother. I always get the omelet.

Surprisingly, I had only one tablemate – a gentleman from Rifle, Colorado who was returning home from a few days in Denver visiting his father. He had recently retired from a long career with the Colorado State Department of Transportation and was looking forward to waking up late, working on a few projects around his house and otherwise figuring out retirement on the fly.

As we cleared the downtown area and rolled northwest toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I took greater interest in the view out my window. I recognized all of these neighborhoods – many of which have been around for over sixty years. When I was a kid, a friend of mine lived up in northern Arvada and we used to tear around the neighborhood on our bikes and watch the Rio Grande freights go by just a couple blocks west of where the train crosses Wadsworth Blvd. I wasn’t really a train fan as a young kid but trains were big and loud and you could practically feel their power as the locomotives roared past. I watched more intently as we approached Wadsworth. There it is! We used to climb that tree right there and train spot! Everything looked just like it did fifty years ago.

Breakfast arrived followed shortly thereafter by coffee refills. I must say that service from the dining car staff was quite good. Jesse the steward may have been a bit abrupt in his personality but he was also efficient. The wait staff was friendly and attentive and the cooks clearly knew what they were doing. Check out this omelet!

Breakfast aboard the California Zephyr

Leaving the Denver suburbs behind, the Zephyr began to climb up into the foothills northwest of Denver, heading up Boulder Creek just above Eldorado Springs and continuing to climb whilst passing through 28 tunnels enroute to The Big One – The Moffat Tunnel – 6.2 miles long at an elevation of about 9200 feet. Prior to the tunnel’s opening in 1928, trains had to climb up over Rollins Pass. You can clearly see the old rail bed up the side of the mountain above the East Portal. The top of Rollins Pass is at 11000 feet and it used to take trains about five hours to get over the pass and down to the town of Fraser on the west side. Now, it takes about 10 minutes to get through the Moffat Tunnel and another 10 minutes to get to Fraser.

California Zephyr climbing up into the Rockies

Trackside at Winter Park

Speeding along the Colorado and US 40 towards Kremmling, CO

As we continued west through the Rockies, the scenery was spectacular as the tracks parallel the Colorado River for over 200 miles. The lounge car was full as we departed Granby – and for good reason. The views as we traveled through Byers and Gore canyons is as good as it gets by rail anywhere in North America.

Byers Canyon starts at the west end of Hot Sulphur Springs, about 8 miles west of Granby. It’s not a long canyon – stretching only 8 miles – nor is it particularly deep but it does feature some pretty rock formations and good views of the river.

California Zephyr entering Byers Canyon

Byers Canyon on the Colorado River

Shortly after leaving Byers Canyon the Zephyr enters Gore Canyon. Now Gore Canyon, while stretching only about 3 miles, is a much deeper and more rugged canyon with steep granite walls ascending almost 1000 feet on either side. The Colorado River drops almost 300 feet over the length of the canyon resulting in arguably the most intense whitewater kayaking to be found in the state.

One of many tunnels in Gore Canyon

Colorful Colorado just outside my window

Rocky Mountain High

Leaving the dramatic beauty of the steep walled canyons behind, we rolled through a series of verdant valleys and more arid landscapes as we passed through Colorado’s “Western Slope”. One of the prettiest rafting canyons is nicknamed “Christmas Tree Canyon” for the green spruce and fir trees that dot its rocky red terrain. It’s a pretty nice canyon to ride a train through as well.

Christmas Tree Canyon

Leaving Christmas Tree Canyon

California Zephyr near Bond, CO

Rolling along the Colorado River near Dotsero

An eagle soars over the river

Shortly after passing the cutoff to Sweetwater Lake, I made my way forward to the Sightseer Lounge to see if any seats might have opened up. To my surprise, six or seven had become available. The first call for lunch had recently been made, so perhaps that contributed to the openings. I figured I’d stick around through Glenwood Canyon – perhaps the most spectacular of the many canyons the Zephyr passes through – and then look into lunch upon our arrival into Glenwood Springs.

By the time we’d crossed over the confluence of the Colorado and Eagle rivers, you could sense the anticipation as the high, colorful walls of Glenwood Canyon loomed ahead.

Colorado’s beautiful Glenwood Canyon from above
The California Zephyr runs on the left side of the river
Photo courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation

Rail, Road & River in Glenwood Canyon

Rail, Road & River in Glenwood Canyon

Glenwood Springs is a popular destination for California Zephyr passengers, and rightly so. The town’s famous hot springs have been attracting visitors since 1888 and feature the world’s largest hot springs pool. The big pool is kept at 90°F but for the more adventurous there is a smaller pool that’s kept at a toasty 112°F. The town itself is as charming as its setting is beautiful. I have spent many a night at the local hostel where a private room with a mattress on the floor can be had for just $27.00/night. Those desiring more upscale accommodations will find plenty of other options, including the trendy Hotel Colorado, located just across the river from the hot springs.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Oct 7, 18 at 10:39 pm
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:29 pm
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The landscape became considerably more arid as the train rolled on through the broad canyons of Western Colorado. While enjoying lunch in the dining car, I had an interesting conversation with a couple of people from England regarding the town of New Castle, Colorado, located about 15 miles west of Glenwood Springs. The topic came up because they were from the English coal mining town of Newcastle which sits on the River Tyne. Much like the English town, the mountains surrounding this area are rich with coal which became the impetus for New Castle, Colorado’s development into the bustling mining community it became in the late 1880s. Although agriculture is probably responsible for more jobs around the area these days, you can still see some impressive coal trains on this line – many with multiple locomotives in the front and back of the trains.

West of Rifle, Colorado

Western Colorado scenery – approaching Grand Junction, CO

Train time in Grand Junction, CO

Grand Junction is a service stop for the Zephyr and the train spends about 15 minutes there. Trash is disposed of while some food and beverage items including ice are re-stocked. There’s a small railroad themed store inside the Grand Junction train station. It’s quite popular with passengers although for me the best part of this trip was stepping off the train and meeting briefly with some old friends of mine who used to work with me in Alaska.

We departed Grand Junction right on time and accelerated smoothly out into the beautiful red Canyonlands of eastern Utah. This is one of the prettiest parts of the journey and is best experienced during the late spring and summer months when the longer days and early evening sun color the canyon beautifully during the Zephyr’s transit.

Entering Ruby Canyon

Ruby Canyon

Ruby Canyon

Red rock goblins watch our passing

Leaving Ruby Canyon, the Zephyr emerges into the arid desert landscape of east central Utah. Earlier in the day I’d made reservations for the 6:15pm dinner sitting. And what a setting it was! To the north of the train runs the thousand-foot-high wall of cliffs known as “The Book Cliffs”. It is the longest continuous line of cliffs in the world, winding for about 250 miles from western Colorado well into Utah.

Utah’s Book Cliffs

Utah’s Book Cliffs

We has just pulled out of Green River, Utah when an announcement notified us that passengers holding 6:15pm dinner reservations should report to the diner. I know Green River well from my days of rafting its namesake Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons. After six days on the river, the town of Green River represented a veritable oasis. The downtown area has changed little to this day and remains one of my favorite Utah destinations. Unfortunately, the train station is located on a dusty side road on the outskirts of town. It is a nondescript cinderblock building that offers only a platform with no passenger shelter or ticketing services.

Up in the diner I had requested a table on the right hand side, facing the Book Cliffs. As a single diner it wasn’t a difficult request to fulfill. My tablemates were Steve and Karen, a couple from Reno, Nevada, and Dorothy, who, like me, was a single traveler on her way to Colfax, California.

Menus were presented and we settled into introductions. Steve and Karen had boarded this morning in Denver and were on their way home after a week’s stay visiting friends up in Conifer, Colorado. I know Conifer! I used to live just down the road in Evergreen. Karen had grown up in Aspen Park, famous in my day for its unique Coney Island Hot Dog Diner, shaped as a 42-foot-long, mustard-and-relish-covered hot dog resting on a 35-foot bun. The diner was originally located down in Denver on West Colfax. Despite the daunting logistics (the complete diner weighs about 18 tons) the diner was relocated to the tiny mountain town of Aspen Park in 1970. Karen informed me that the diner had been moved again about ten years ago and now sits 20 miles down U.S. 285 on the banks of the South Platte River in Bailey, Colorado.

Dorothy had boarded in Granby, Colorado. She’d spent the winter working as a ski instructor in nearby Winter Park and was now returning home to California where she hoped to land a job with the trail crew in Sequoia National Park. Woo! My kind of girl! She’d ridden Amtrak out to Colorado in November and had enjoyed the experience – not to mention the price which – given the fact that the California Zephyr actually stopped at Winter Park - was about half of what she’d have paid had she flown into Denver and arranged ground transport from there.

I usually like to take full advantage of menus that are included in the fare but as I’d eaten a late lunch, I really wasn’t hungry enough to eat a full dinner. As such, I ordered my longtime luncheon favorite – the Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger. Yes, this was my second one of the day but damn! Those burgers are really good!

Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger

Steve and Karen were particularly happy with the “free” meals. They had ridden out to Colorado in Coach and had decided to upgrade to a roomette for their return trip to Reno. Karen commented that the roomettes were pretty cozy for two people but the complimentary meals really added to the value of their upgrade. On the way out to Denver they’d limited their dining car meals to just one breakfast because they considered the cost of lunch and dinner to be too expensive. Now, the fact that they could order whatever they wanted off the menu really made the trip for them. Both were pleased with their meals – steak for Steve and salmon for Karen. Dorothy also ordered the salmon and I made a mental reminder to make that my next entrée choice two nights from now aboard the Coast Starlight.

After dinner, we all went our separate ways. I headed back to my roomette to grab my daypack, Jack Daniels and laptop. Then it was off to the lounge car where I found plenty of empty seats – in stark contrast to earlier today when every seat was taken as we headed up into the Rockies. No doubt, that scenery through the Rockies is pretty special but in its way, tonight’s visage as we sped across the broad expanse of Utah desert at sunset was almost as alluring.

Lounge Car ambiance – speeding across Utah at sunset

Speeding across Utah at sunset
Photo courtesy of Amtrak

Relocating to an empty table, I fired up my laptop and then headed downstairs to the café for a couple cups of ice. I felt pretty safe about leaving my gear unattended while I went downstairs. It’s hard to imagine someone absconding with it in full sight of other patrons across the aisle and besides, where would they go? I had my wallet with me and used it to purchase a can of Ginger Ale. The Ginger Ale purchase would explain the need for two glasses of ice (not that the café attendant probably cared either way) and it looks very similar to bourbon in the glass, so if a conductor were to wander by, all would look legit with my can of Ginger Ale on the table and Jack Daniels in my glass.

Maybe it was an apparently light load on this portion of the ride, or perhaps it was my misshapen hump and antlers but I never did come across anyone in the lounge car to chat with and share my bourbon. Of course I wasn’t really looKing that hard since I had the laptop open (and at times my headphones on) and the people seated around me all seemed to be comfortably into their own things, be it a game of cards or just conversation.

For my part, although I enjoy the company I’m hardly lonely in these situations. So many of my travels have been on my own that I’m quite comfortable keeping my own company. Indeed, I would never dream of imposing myself on anyone. Just because you’re sitting next to someone doesn’t mean you’re compelled to talk to them. It’s been my experience that most conversations with complete strangers while traveling just sorta happen – maybe through a shared experience or something we just saw. The last thing I’d ever be caught doing is trying to force conversation on anyone.

In any event, I put in some time on my laptop for an hour or so, listened to music, drank whisky and even put in a bit of work on this trip report. That was so long ago that I can’t possibly recall what part I was writing about but I’m quite sure it wasn’t the train ride. More than likely I was probably still composing the preamble.

By 11:00pm I was back in my roomette, teeth flossed and brushed and ready for bed. Hard to believe this is my third straight night on the rails. My how time flies…

Last edited by Seat 2A; Oct 20, 18 at 12:14 pm
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:34 pm
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Day Four
Amtrak First Class ~ Enroute through Nevada & California ~ Arr. 430p
Amtrak First Class ~ Coast Starlight ~ Emeryville, CA to Seattle, WA ~ Dep. 1001p

When I awoke we were gliding smoothly atop welded rail while speeding across north central Nevada. Judging by the speed of the landscape passing by, we had to have been traveling at or near the posted maximum of 79 mph. Now I know that’s not very speedy compared to fast trains in Europe or Asia but then what’s the hurry? I love this region! The last thing I’d want to do is roll across this beautiful landscape at 200 miles per hour.

Much of Nevada is in what’s known as the Great American Basin. It’s one of the four main deserts of the American West, the others being the Chihuahua (New Mexico), the Sonoran (Arizona) and the Mojave (Southeastern California). It’s a big, broad landscape and a great place to ride a train through. Doing so at 79 mph felt like just the right speed.

The view from my bed

Good Morning, Nevada!

Dune-like mountains to the north

When I headed out into the vestibule to retrieve some shampoo from my luggage, I could see that the shower room was occupied this morning. Amtrak’s Superliners have just one shower serving fourteen roomettes as well as the family bedroom. I’m rather amazed at how often it’s been readily available on my past trips. Either my timing has been extraordinarily fortuitous or many people just don’t bother to shower regularly during their rides.

Now before anyone gets their knickers in a knot over any perceived hygienic shortcomings amongst my train riding brethren, consider for a moment that the train cars are comfortably air-conditioned and over the course of a two or three day journey you’re unlikely to be doing much of anything that’ll result in your working up a sweat. Coach passengers don’t have access to showers and I’ve rarely ever noticed any of them creating a stink. Back in the days when I would spend a couple weeks at a time riding in coach on rail passes, I did pretty well with sponge baths in the onboard lavatories and even managed to wash my hair over the tiny sinks. Honestly now, anyone so prissy that they can’t travel on a train without having a shower every single day should probably not even be reading my reports, much less riding on anything less than the $1000.00 per day Orient Express.

I was a little concerned that were I to wait for the shower to become free, I might miss last call for breakfast and so I quickly threw on a clean set of clothes and made my way to the diner where a hot cup of coffee and a chilled glass of orange juice were promptly delivered to me. The diner was surprisingly quiet this morning and I ended up with the table to myself for the entire meal.

We arrived into Reno about five minutes early – a much anticipated and most welcome relief for the smokers on the train who hadn’t had a smoke since four hours earlier in Winnemucca. As soon as the doors were opened, they leapt from the train almost in unison – like lemmings running off a cliff. Cigarettes were quickly lit, smoke was sucked down and almost magically they went from stressed out to comfortably relaxed. Pity the cycle starts all over again as soon as we depart Reno. The next smoke break is Sacramento – four hours down the line. I sure am glad I quit back when we were still allowed to smoke onboard Amtrak trains.

The California Zephyr is a popular way for Bay Area travelers to travel to Reno and back for a day or three of gambling or even a few days of skiing at one of the many nearby ski resorts surrounding Lake Tahoe. I watched as a steady stream of passengers descended the escalator and made their way onto various cars. I would estimate we boarded close to one hundred more passengers out of Reno. In the coach cars the new arrivals make an immediate impact by their presence – noisy, generally happy and excited to be headed home. Comfortably ensconced downstairs in my sleeper, the ambiance remained calm and quiet, much more to my liking. When I’m ready for a little more action, I’ll head up to the lounge car.

Just west of Reno we commenced a long, steady climb along the banks of the Truckee River up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The scenery is pretty though by my account not nearly as dramatic as what we’d experienced in Colorado the day before. A volunteer from a local historical society provided commentary during this portion of the trip.

Climbing up into the Sierras

The last remnants of winter persist atop Donner Pass

Spring is on full display as we descend the Sierra’s western slope

As we descended down the western slope of the Sierras, the sun seemed to intensify and the day as well as the scenery warmed up beautifully. The lower we got, the greener it became. As we rolled through the woods just above Colfax, I thought I spotted some hippies out flitting happily about the forest. And why not? It was a gorgeous sun drenched day and a big part of me wished I could’ve been out there with them.

After a long service stop in Sacramento during which we lost a substantial number of passengers (From Sacramento Amtrak Connect busses deliver connecting passengers to a variety of East Bay destinations) we continued along the shores of San Francisco Bay, speeding past a variety of marshlands, old broken down wharfs and a few boats that didn’t look like they’d sailed anywhere for a half century of more.

Speeding along San Francisco Bay

You know, there are a multitude of stories about Amtrak trains running late but hardly any – none really - about the many times that they’ve arrived on time or better yet – early. Over the years I’ve logged almost 200,000 miles aboard Amtrak. That may not sound like much to those of you who’ve spent a lot more time earning air miles but look at it this way – Amtrak trains average about 50 mph or 1,100 miles per day. By comparison, airplanes average about 500 mph so if you were to extrapolate Amtrak’s speed to that of an airliner, we’d be looking at about 2 million miles that I’ve traveled by rail.

I don’t mean to brag. That’s not my intent since who here at FlyerTalk really gives a hoot about rail miles anyway? No – the reason for me trotting out that particular stat is to present myself as imminently qualified to comment on Amtrak’s much improved record for on time performance. Today, we arrived in Emeryville about fifteen minutes early.

With a six hour layover until my connection to the northbound Coast Starlight, I stored my luggage with the station attendants and then purchased roundtrip bus tickets into downtown San Francisco. With the drop off point at the South Bay Transit Center leaving me only a three block walk from my favorite affordable San Francisco eatery, I had more than enough time to enjoy a leisurely dinner before returning to Emeryville for the 10:00pm departure of my Seattle bound train.

San Francisco has a lot of fantastic restaurants but I have always loved the ambiance, the service and the food at the Perry’s Restaurant located on the ground floor of the Hotel Griffon down by the Embarcadero. Truth be told, I also like the price. I mean, why pay $80-100 for a decent dinner when $50.00 will do the job nicely at a place like Perry’s? I love the dark wood accented interior, the bar and its TVs tuned to a generally interesting sporting and the small patio and its ambiance on the back side of the building.

Most of all though, I like the food and the service. I had a typically delicious chicken dinner, washed down with a couple pints of a delicious new beer for me – Johnny Utah Pale Ale from Seattle’s Georgetown Brewing Co. My first experience with this brewery was via a pint of Manny’s Pale Ale which I discovered in a Seattle airport area restaurant a couple of years back. It was – by my tastes at least – just about as good a pale ale as one can get. And, I’m happy to report, Manny’s is now served regularly in American Express’ Centurion Lounge at SeaTac as well as Alaska Airlines’ North Satellite Alaska Lounge. As an added bonus, Alaska also serves one of GBC’s entries into the IPA market called Bodhizafa IPA which I recently had the pleasure of tasting at Alaska’s C Concourse Alaska Lounge at SeaTac. Most IPA’s are so hoppy they taste like a bag of good bud in liquid form. This one had much more depth and character – again, by my tastes. Your tastes may vary. So far as I know, none of Georgetown Brewing Company’s products are yet available in can or bottle, so if any of you should find yourselves thirsty while laying over at SeaTac, make an effort to locate one of these beers. Take it from me – ol’ Seat 2A. I’ve drunk a lot of beer in my life and I’m confident most of youse will like these beers – even you Aussies who generally sneer at American beers.

Back at the Emeryville station, we waited an extra nine minutes for the late arrival of the Coast Starlight. When it did finally arrive, it came into the station with such alacrity that by the time it finally squealed to a stop the end of the very last car had just passed the station entrance. This was convenient for Coach passengers whose cars were located at the very end of the train but for those of us in First Class it meant a long walk down almost the entire length of the platform to our sleepers.

My car attendant tonight was Steve, a wily old Amtrak veteran with 29 years of service logged. That’s a long time! It’s hard to believe that as long ago as 29 years ago was; it was even longer – 35 years ago – that I was practically living aboard Amtrak’s new Superliners while taking advantage of its extremely affordable All Aboard America Fares. What fun that was! Over a span of about three years I rode aboard just about every Amtrak train there was over all but about 600 miles of the national route system.

Sadly, one thing missing from tonight’s train was the Pacific Parlour Car. Unfortunately, these wonderful old lounge cars simply became too old and too expensive to maintain. That said, it sure would be nice if Amtrak were to bring them back via refurbishment to some of its first generation Sightseer Lounge Cars. Still, that would involve a minimum investment of about two or three million dollars per car – something I don’t see happening under Richard Anderson’s administration. And – I can’t say I would blame Mr. Anderson were that the case. After all, how much did the Pacific Parlour Cars contribute to the profitability of the Coast Starlight? How many people actively chose to ride the Starlight due to the presence of these cars? Sadly, I suspect the answers to these questions might be painfully obvious. Even so, I’ll miss the unique comfort and class they contributed to a ride on the Coast Starlight. Here’s a picture of one for old time’s sake…

Amtrak’s Pacific Parlour Car

Interestingly, the Starlight had carried an almost full load between LA and the Bay Area. In particular, my roomette had only just been vacated at Emeryville and so Steve had performed a quick cleanup and then asked if I’d like my room set up for nighttime occupancy. Sure, why not? It only takes a couple of minutes to convert a roomette for nighttime use, so once he’d completed the conversion, I dropped off my gear and headed up to the lounge car for a nightcap.

With the retirement of the Pacific Parlour Cars, Amtrak’s First Class passengers aboard the Starlight must once again join the masses in the Sightseer Lounge Cars. There are worse things in life. It was about 10:15pm when we powered east up the tracks toward Sacramento and beyond. I arrived in the lounge to find maybe a dozen people as we rolled through the east bay community of Richmond. Downstairs in the café a group of four were having a loud and garrulous time laughing it up at one of the booths.

The café attendant was a nice guy named Ramon who was on his 18th year working for Amtrak. Jobs like café attendant or anything in the dining car are highly sought after and only the most senior employees have a chance of securing one. I asked Ramon if he knew my friend Jay who worked the Coast Starlight as a sleeping car attendant. He wasn’t sure but he thought he might know of him. A lot of these folks work with the same crews for long periods and when you consider that the Starlight is a daily train traveling over a two day long itinerary in each direction, there’s four crews right there. Factor in a couple or three days off after a round trip and there’re four more crews. Once they’re senior there’s not a lot of inter-mingling with other crews. Less senior employees are often on call and so work with many different crews but it had obviously been a long time since Ramon had done that. I requested my usual Ginger Ale and ice and bid Ramon a good night.

Back upstairs, I savored my ice cold Jack Daniels on the rocks and watched the lights of Martinez and Davis flashed by. In many areas the tracks run right alongside the waters of San Francisco Bay and on a nice evening like tonight the sight of distant lights around and across the bay was quite pretty. By 11:30pm we were about a half hour out of Sacramento, running right on time. Some of the most impressive scenery along the route of the Coast Starlight is up north of Sacramento as the train rolls on through northern California, the Siskiyous and on into southern Oregon. Unfortunately most all of this landscape is traveled through at night thus depriving us of some magnificent scenery along the way. As such, I decided to call it a night shortly before we eased into Sacramento.
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:36 pm
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Day Five
Amtrak First Class ~ Enroute through Oregon & Washington ~ Arr. 800p

I’d left my curtains partly open through the night – all the better to appreciate the starlight as we sped through the night - and so by contrast the light of the new day may well have roused me from my slumber. A quick glance at my watch indicated it was just after 7:30am. Well dang – I guess I missed a view of Mt. Shasta. Then again, maybe not. The terrain didn’t look right. I’ve made over 30 trips aboard the Coast Starlight and more than most I’m pretty familiar with the landscapes along the way. It didn’t look like southern Oregon out my window.

Upstairs at the service area, I asked a fellow rider if she knew where we were – or if she’d seen Mt. Shasta. She had no idea on either account but said she’d heard we were running about an hour late. Aha! Well that makes sense then – it’s certainly not unheard of that issues related to freight traffic occasionally affect Amtrak trains. It used to be really bad years ago as the host railroads routinely pushed Amtrak trains off on to sidings in favor of their more profitable freight traffic but congress finally put the word out to the host railroads that this bullying of Amtrak would no longer be tolerated. That said, there are still legitimate situations that arise that can result in delays, so looking at our situation in a more positive light meant that we’d be able to see California’s Mt. Shasta, towering 14,179 feet above sea level and probably 10 or 11 thousand feet above the level of our tracks. Had we been on time, we’d have been rolling past America’s second highest volcano at about 6:30am – a time when most of us would have been comfortably slumbering through the last hour or two of a good night’s sleep. This morning however, thanks to our delay, we still got to enjoy the always breathtaking visage of this beautiful volcano.

Mt. Shasta towers above the Coast Starlight

As I savored my coffee and a granola bar which I’d purchased at a corner market in San Francisco I couldn’t help but muse on the fact that this was my fifth straight day riding the rails and honestly, per my standards at least life couldn’t be better. I mean, I’d just spent the past four nights aboard Amtrak Superliners and now here I was rolling through some of the prettiest landscape on the continent. I’ve had a comfortable bed to sleep in each night, a hot shower most mornings, coffee and orange juice conveniently located nearby and three square meals each day. As travel experiences go, for guys like me who are into the journey it just doesn’t get much better.

It was just after 9:00am when we rolled into the southern Oregon community of Klamath Falls. This is a service stop for the Starlight where garbage is disposed of and necessities like water and ice are restocked. This translates into about a fifteen minute stop, more than enough time to step off the train, enjoy a few lungful’s of crisp morning air (or for some a cigarette), and maybe purchase a copy of the local paper. I managed to accomplish all of these things (except the cigarette) before re-boarding and heading back to the dining car where hot coffee, a good veggie omelet with cheese, black beans, corn, chicken sausage and a biscuit gave me a good start for the day.

Out of Klamath we rolled north along the shores of Klamath Lake where a very pretty view was had of 9,495’ Mt. McLoughlin, a classic steep sided conical volcano that last erupted about 30000 years ago. I think it’s about due! Of course, translated into the context of a geologic timeline, “about due” could be any time in the next two or three thousand years.

Oregon’s 9,495’ Mt. McLoughlin

At Chemult the Starlight begins a long, gradual climb up into the Cascade Mountains. Along the way the train traverses 22 tunnels, many of them snow sheds designed to protect passing trains from avalanches.

Climbing through one of the many snow sheds in the Cascades

As we descended down the western side of Willamette Pass., the forest transitioned from predominantly coniferous pine, fir and hemlock to an increasing mix of deciduous species such as aspen, maple, birch and larch. The warmer temperatures on the western slope contributed to the exciting glow of spring amidst the newly green leaves compared to the cooler conditions on the eastern slope.

Last call for lunch was made as we entered the Willamette Valley above Eugene. I was sat with Jack, Elizabeth and Grady – a family of three who had boarded in San Luis Obispo the day before and was returning home to Corvallis, Oregon. They’d been visiting Elizabeth’s parents who lived in Pismo Beach, just south of SLO. For their travel between Corvallis and San Luis Obispo, the Coast Starlight was perfect – much better than flying which would have been much more expensive were they to fly into San Luis Obispo. The Coast Starlight had great departure and arrival times in both directions and with the use of Amtrak’s companion coupon and the half price kids sale it all added up to a deal that was simply too good to pass up.

We all ordered hamburgers for lunch – the black bean and corn veggie burger for me and Elizabeth and the all-beef angus burger for Jack and Grady. I asked for and received a side salad, cheese and bacon with my burger – added at no additional cost as part of my sleeper fare.

Lunch time ambiance in the Willamette Valley

Luncheon Salad

Black Bean and Corn Veggie Burger

By the time we’d eased into Eugene we’d managed to make up about fifteen minutes off our delay. A conductor passing by while we were in the dining car assured the couple next to us that we’d likely make up another 15-10 minutes on our arrival into Portland, so they’d still be okay for their connection to the eastbound Empire Builder.

Travel from Eugene up to Corvallis and beyond to Portland is up the broad Willamette River Valley. The scenery is pretty though not particularly inspiring. As such, I bid adieu to my luncheon companions and retired to my roomette to lie down and stretch out for a bit. Earlier in the day I’d asked Steve to leave my roomette in its sleeping configuration as it was more comfortable for me to lie down and read as opposed to sitting up. It does my back good to get horizontal now and then – something I rarely get a chance to do in my day to day life.

By the time we pulled into Portland we were just twenty minutes off schedule. Steve said there was so much extra time built into the schedule between Portland and Seattle that our arrival into Seattle was al but guaranteed. In the meantime, we spent a good half hour at Portland, allowing plenty of time for through passengers to go inside the historic brick station and have a look around. Opened in 1896, this is one of my all-time favorite train stations with its distinctive clock tower and polished Italian marble waiting room. Like Denver’s Union Station, there’s a 1940s era neon sign encouraging passengers to “Go By Train”. In Portland this sign is mounted up high on the clock tower. Unlike Denver’s Union Station, Portland’s Union Station also has a Metropolitan Lounge for sleeping car passengers. I stopped in for a quick coffee before re-boarding.

Arrival into Portland over the Steele St. Bridge

Portland’s Union Station

Portland’s Union Station

The four hour ride from Portland up to Seattle is fairly nondescript. It’s essentially 170 miles of tree lined tracks with the occasional river and highway crossing. It becomes a lot more interesting north of Tacoma as the tracks run along or near the Puget Sound. One of the benefits of traveling in the late spring and early summer is that with the longer days the sun sat low in the sky as we passed under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The view was spectacular!

Tacoma Narrows Bridge at sunset

Puget Sound at sunset

During my layover in San Francisco I’d taken advantage of a free Wi-Fi connection at the Griffon Hotel to explore my options for getting from Seattle out to the airport after the arrival of this train. I knew about the light rail option from the International District Station, conveniently located right next door to Seattle’s King Street Station. However, I was curious about the possibility of getting off at Tacoma and catching a bus from there. The Starlight was scheduled to arrive at Tacoma an hour and ten minutes before its arrival into Seattle and it was possible to catch a bus from Tacoma directly to the airport. Even factoring in our delayed arrival (we were only ten minutes late) there’d still be enough time to walk four blocks up to the Tacoma Dome Transit Center and catch the 574 bus direct to the airport. Doing so would get me to SeaTac a good hour earlier than if I’d detrained in Seattle, and into my hotel that much earlier as well.

So it was that I detrained early at Tacoma. My timing couldn’t have been better in that after walking the four blocks up Puyallup Avenue to the Tacoma Dome Transit Center, the airport bus was just getting ready to depart. By 8:30pm I was checking into my room at the Ramada SeaTac – about an hour and a half earlier than if I’d detrained at the end of the line in Seattle. I’ve always liked Ramada SeaTac for its convenient location, clean rooms and the excellent Ginger Palace Restaurant located just off the lobby.

All told, this trip is off to a great start so far! My trans-continental rail journey was everything one could hope for on a long train ride - a pleasant and relaxing experience highlighted by comfortable accommodations, decent food and drink, interesting traveling companions and some of the finest scenery accessible by rail anywhere on the continent.

Tomorrow I’d be off to Colorado for a couple of appointments and then on to LA and beyond to the Orient via Cathay Pacific’s First Class. Let’s get it on!

Day Six
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-800 ~ Seattle, WA to Denver, CO ~ 330p – 708p

Although my favorite Alaska Lounge at SeaTac is the original facility at the junction of the C and D concourses, I am partial to the North Satellite lounge for one thing: Manny’s Pale Ale. Per my tastes at least, this beer is about as close as it gets to the perfect quaff. Dry hopped with a crisp, slightly bitter finish, I find it absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, it is not yet available to the public in bottles so I’ll have to limit my indulgence to SeaTac visits where it is served in Alaska’s main lounge as well as American Express’ Centurion Lounge over on the B concourse.

Flight 682 to Denver was conveniently parked at N2, right next door to Alaska’s North Satellite lounge. I took my time, enjoying a plate of cheese and crackers with my pint of Manny’s before eventually heading across to the gate about twenty minutes before departure. I am rarely one to arrive early at the gate in an effort to be amongst the first to board. As a result, the overhead storage space – especially above row 1 in First Class where I was sat this afternoon – is often taken. So be it. That is the price I am willing to pay to avoid the stress and crowding that accompany the rat race to be amongst the first to board. It’s just not worth it to me.

Rather surprisingly, I arrived onboard to find that despite the First Class cabin being mostly full, there was still plenty of space available above row 2 on both sides of the aisle. Well right on, then. I took my seat, gave a little wave to seatmate who was totally wired in to his I-Pad, and awaited our departure.

Taking off to the south, we made a wide sweeping turn to the southeast that afforded those with window seats on the F side a nice view of Mt. Rainier. I miss sitting in window seats but overall it’s more important to me to have the ease of movement afforded me in an aisle seat so that I can get up and stretch out once in a while. Given my spinal condition, it’s important not to sit too long.

Following its merger with Virgin America, Alaska has made an effort to improve its catering in both substance and presentation. To that end, all appropriately timed flights over 675 miles will now be offered menus and a choice of two entrees. I can’t imagine this will last too long, but hey, let’s enjoy it while it does! Here are today’s meal offerings:

https://private.fotki.com/Seat2A/spring-trip-to-sout/006-as-sea-den-menu.html "]
First Class Menu Seattle to Denver

Is it only me or does a “protein plate” sound more like something you’d order from a cafe in some Southern California body builder's gym? I’ve been stuck with this option once before and found it unappealing. For an airline attempting to offer improved First Class catering to its best customers, I think it’s a poor choice.

By comparison, the Za’atar Chicken Salad was pretty good. I was especially thankful to see that it was based around a foundation of mesclun greens as opposed to arugula, which seems to have been the green of choice for Alaska over the past year or so.

Za’atar Chicken Salad

As always, the descent into Denver was a bit bumpy. It felt at times like the pilots were working hard to line us up for our final, but they kept us generally straight and true, ultimately landing smoothly from the south. Thirty minutes later I was speeding north up Tower Blvd. in a new Chevy Malibu with just 1800 miles on it.

Day Eight
American Airlines Economy Class ~ A319-100 ~ Denver, CO to Los Angeles, CA ~ 809p – 952p

I booked this flight on the alaskaair.com site as a codeshare and perhaps because of that I was able to snag a Main Cabin Extra seat at no extra cost despite having zero status in American’s AAdvantage program. That lack of status came back to haunt me in the boarding process though, as I was assigned Group 6.

Back in the 1970s, I used to fly between Denver and Los Angeles six or seven times a year. More often than not, those flights were aboard Continental DC-10s, complete with distinctive themed cabins with names like the California Room or the Micronesia Room. Also available were lounges in both first and coach classes.

Continental’s DC-10 – The Good Old Days of Flying

These days, I count myself lucky that American’s chosen to upgrade most of its DEN-LAX flights to mainline equipment. For quite a few years there, American shuffled this route off to its American Eagle subsidiary which translated into flights aboard CRJ-700s and, if you were lucky, maybe an Embraer E-75.

Tonight, we could have used one of those DC-10s of old. This flight was completely sold out with several unhappy standbys left standing at the gate.

A sign in the boarding area indicated that American has as many as 9 different boarding groups. By the time they finally got around to calling group 6 though, it seemed as if 80% of the passengers had already boarded. Unfortunately, 90% of the available overhead storage space had already been taken. Especially annoying was that more than a bit of that space was taken with day packs and purses, placed there by inattentive and/or uncaring types who couldn’t be bothered to heed the entreaties of both the gate agents and the flight attendants to place these items under their seats.

Although I was seated at row 10, I ended up having to go all the way back to row 19 before I was able to find space for my roll-a-bord. I then continued to the back of the plane where I spent the next 15 minutes waiting as more and more passengers and their bags began to assemble until enough people got seated so that they could take their bags back up to the front to be gate checked.

As for the flight itself – what can I say? For an 8:00pm departure with no real service other than the beverage cart, it went about as well as such flights can go. I appreciated the extra leg room as well as the plus-sized Biscoff cookies that American doled out. I saved mine to have with coffee tomorrow morning.

* * * _  _ * * *

In years past, given my late arrival, I might have considered crashing in the airport. I know of a couple of good quiet spots over in the Tom Bradley International Terminal that would have worked quite nicely in this regard. Still, I’m flying out of here tomorrow in First Class aboard one of the world’s best airlines. Since the flight isn’t scheduled to depart until 12:30pm, it seemed appropriate to get a hotel for the night.

Over the years I’ve stayed in most of the big name brands out on Century Boulevard. We’re talking Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, etc. They’ve all been very nice in a pleasant, functional sort of way. And yet, I find many of these big corporate brands to be a bit sterile. Much like a new pair of jeans, the rooms all look nice enough but they don’t feel particularly welcoming in a down home comfortable kind of way.

Now I’m not saying a Motel 6 does, either, but I’ve stayed in some pretty nice motels that are well looked after and in terms of furnishings and ambiance have the look and feel of a nice home rather than a nice hotel room. The best example of this that I’ve found amongst the many hotels surrounding LAX is the Travelodge on Century Blvd.

As any of you who’ve stayed in second tier hotels like Ramada Inn or Travelodge know, the quality of such properties can vary greatly despite the corporate name. Take the Ramada at LAX as an example. What a dive! Noisy and frayed at the edges with clientele to match, it’s a place best avoided if you want a good night’s sleep. By comparison, the Ramada at Spokane International has a wonderful Scandinavian ambiance to it with wood and stone and bright, spacious rooms and a wonderful bar and restaurant. The rate includes a full cooked buffet breakfast in the dining room.

The Travelodge at LAX appears to have been built in the 1960s. With its lushly landscaped grounds, palm lined swimming pool, spacious rooms (including poolside rooms with veranda) and affordable down home dining via the attached Denny’s Restaurant, it is absolutely my kind of hotel.

LAX Travelodge

Tonight I had booked a Deluxe King Poolside Room. I slept well on the big, comfortable bed and by 9:00am the next morning was on my way back to LAX.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Oct 19, 18 at 1:18 pm
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:41 pm
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Day Nine
Cathay Pacific First Class ~ 777-300 ~ Los Angeles, CA to Hong Kong, CH ~ 1230p – 655p

I love the feeling of waking up with the anticipation of an International First Class flight later in the day. Any of you who’ve had the good fortune to have done so yourselves know what of I speak. We’re talking about the very best way one can fly as a passenger. It’s great fun to read reports from our brethren who have flown First Class aboard the world’s finest airlines but it’s quite another thing to actually experience the service yourself. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced inflight service of this stature on many occasions, most recently six months ago while flying Qantas from Sydney to Dallas. I can’t wait to do it again!

A quality First Class flight is not just the space or the food. It’s the training and pride reflected in flight attendants who anticipate your needs, not just come when they’re called. It’s consistently and graciously meeting the expectations and needs of an often sophisticated and seasoned clientele, many of whom have expectations commensurate with their lot in life, a lot that rarely if ever includes Economy or Business Class travel. It’s training and pride that reflect in a meal being presented, not just served. It’s a commitment by the airline to provide only the finest in food and amenities and to maintain a high standard of service that allows only the best and most dedicated flight attendants to work the First Class cabin. It’s class. First Class. It all adds up to the very best service one can expect in the air and it’s exciting stuff to experience, much less anticipate. I’ve been looking forward to this flight for two months and now the day is here! Let’s head on over to the International Terminal and check in.

* * * _  _ * * *

9:00am might seem a bit early to head out to the airport for a 12:30pm flight, but remember - we’re flying International First Class aboard Cathay Pacific today and, as many of you know, one of the prime benefits of International First Class air travel is the chance to enjoy a bit of preflight repose in the First Class Lounge.

Now a few years ago, Cathay Pacific’s lounge experience wouldn’t have been all that worthy of excitement because Cathay used the rather generic One World First Class Lounge at LAX. However, with the opening of Qantas’ new First Class Lounge in 2014, all of that changed for the better. Much better.

Let’s check-in first, though.

The Tom Bradley International Terminal – henceforth referred to as the TBIT – was built to accommodate the influx of visitors for the 1984 Olympics. The original facility – while reasonably functional by 1984 standards – in later years bore the brunt of many complaints as it failed to keep up with the post-deregulation increase in air travelers. A variety of plans were submitted and reviewed but ultimately left grounded by political turmoil.

In 2010 construction began on the $1.5 billion Bradley West project, part of a $4 billion batch of LAX improvement and redevelopment projects. The Bradley West project added over 1,250,000 square feet of shops, restaurants, and passenger lounges, as well as new security screening, customs, immigration, and baggage claim facilities. When all of the projects came to fruition with the opening of the new terminal in 2013, it was a breath of fresh air to the Los Angeles air travel scene.

I arrived at Cathay’s ticket counter to find a choice of agents waiting to check me in. I picked the one with the brightest eyes and the nicest smile and, following the usual formalities, was soon on my way up to the security checkpoint.

Airlines have been touting the arrival of TSA Pre✓® at LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, but it’s the modified version - much like you find in smaller airports such as Fairbanks. This means you still have to remove your laptop and other large electronics but hey - that’s still a huge improvement over the discombobulated and poorly run operation I’ve often endured while flying out of here in years past. The last time I was here the First Class screening lane took considerably longer to get through than the Economy Class lane.

Qantas’ First Class Lounge is located up on the fifth floor of the TBIT. Well placed signage directed me easily up the elevator and beyond to the lounge. As I strolled through the attractive etched glass doors and approached the reception desk, try to imagine my surprise when the receptionist stood and greeted me by name. I briefly flashed back to 1871 when Stanley found Dr. Livingston in the wilds of Tanzania. “Seat 2A, I presume?” Although I’m not a guy who’s big on being addressed by name while traveling, I was nonetheless suitably impressed.

With about two hours to go before having to head down to the gate, my plan was to have a leisurely breakfast and then get on the internet to purchase some travel insurance and maybe check a few sports scores. What the heck – I might even take a spin over to FlyerTalk to see what’s going on. Ever aware that many of you would surely appreciate a few pictures of the QANTAS lounge, I pulled out my trusty Canon SX-160IS and attempted to capture a few shots of the seating and dining areas. It quickly became apparent however that the limited scope of my lens would not allow the quality of photo that a proper review of this lounge deserves, so I hope you’ll forgive me (or possibly even thank me!) for instead providing a link to an excellent photographic and journalistic review of this lounge presented by Ben Schlappig at his superb website One Mile At A Time. You’ll find the link to that review right HERE. Here also are a couple of my pictures:

Qantas First Class Lounge at LAX

Qantas First Class Lounge at LAX

Qantas First Class Lounge at LAX

Now then, with that out of the way, let’s eat!

The dining area is comprised of about 20 tables set alongside a long, modern styled bar. Honestly, the bar was the real highlight here with an impressive selection of bottled beers, wines and spirits set against a stylish contemporary back bar. Had it not been so early in the day, I would’ve happily toasted my good fortune with a glass of fine Australian wine or an equally delicious American made bourbon. Speaking of which, why don’t the Australians produce an internationally renowned whiskey? If they went at it with the same fervor and expertise that they do their winemaking, I’ve no doubt they’d be highly successful. Perhaps they already have a world class bourbon type whiskey and I’m just unaware of it, so if anyone has any suggestions in this regard, please feel free to pass them along.

But I digress. A waiter indicated I was free to sit wherever I liked and then came over with a menu while taking my drink request. Coffee and water, please. Now then, let’s check out that breakfast menu:

QANTAS First Class Lounge Breakfast Menu

Oh my, what an impressive selection! Honestly, I doubt there’s another restaurant anywhere in the airport offering such a nice variety of breakfast foods - certainly not on a complimentary basis. Now bear with me here as I take a stroll down memory lane… but I remember when LAX’s iconic Theme Building actually had a working restaurant. It was quite a nice one, too, operated by Marriott Host. To this day I cannot remember having ever been served a finer plate of Eggs Benedict anywhere.

By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with the LAX theme building, I’m talking about the iconic white spider looking building that graces the center of the airport. Built in 1961, it was once a popular place to eat and drink that for many was as much a part of a visit to LAX as getting on a plane.

Back then the restaurant revolved 360° and one thing I remember from that memorable meal was that it was the first time I had ever taken notice of TWA’s new livery. Gone was the old Star Stream livery with its attractive red banner along the length of the fuselage and the famous Raymond Loewy designed golden globe logo on the tail. The new livery harkened back to the days of the Constellation with twin red stripes under the windows and an almost solid red tail with white TWA lettering within. It was the spring of 1974 and I was young enough to be excited because the livery was new and different and yet disappointed because I didn’t feel the new livery reflected anywhere near the class and distinction that the airline had always embodied.

Anyway, the restaurant in the Theme Building served good food back then and also had a great observation deck. Unfortunately, the restaurant in the building has been closed since 2013 and, given the cost of parking and the time involved in pre-flight security procedures these days, it seems unlikely to open again – at least not as a restaurant.

Alas, there were no Eggs Benedict on today’s menu so I cobbled together the closest I could – two poached eggs with green pea fritters and a side of mushrooms, beans and hash browns. And more coffee, please!

Breakfast in the QANTAS Lounge

As the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun and suddenly it was approaching noon and the first call was being made to proceed downstairs to gate 150 for the boarding of Cathay Pacific’s flight 885 with nonstop service to Hong Kong.

Well alrighty then! Let’s get this show on the road!

As I made my way down through TBIT’s great hall, I couldn’t help but admire the high sweeping ceilings and large angled windows that allowed plenty of natural light to wash over the many fine shops and restaurants sprinkled throughout the terminal. I really have to tip my hat to all the folks involved in this project from the architects to the city commissioners who managed to get together and pull this off. TBIT is a great looking terminal and one that should reflect positively on both Los Angeles and America as a whole for many years to come.

* * * _  _ * * *

It’s been just over two years since my last flight with Cathay Pacific. Some of you may recall that trip as the one I impulsively booked from scratch just hours beforehand while suddenly deciding to knock off my 5 millionth mile flown from the comfort of a First Class Suite aboard an Emirates A380. It was an all-First Class around the world extravaganza completed in just 5 days and a most fitting way to break through the 5 million mile mark in style. Any of you that feel like reading through that one again sometime, you’ll find it right HERE.

Flashbacks to that trip were easy to come by since the 777-300 operating this afternoon’s flight to Hong Kong was none other than B-KPI, my old friend from two years ago. I flew on this airplane from Vancouver to New York to Hong Kong before switching over to a venerable 747 for the comparatively short flight down to Singapore. And now here she was again – two years older but looking clean and fit in Cathay’s new livery. It’s nice to see you again, old girl! Let’s go to Hong Kong!

A big crowd had amassed at the entrance to the jet bridge, many of whom were now using the First and Business lane as well as the Economy Class lane. I showed my boarding pass to the agent at the podium and was immediately escorted past the throngs of Economy and Business Class passengers to the First Class line. Surprisingly, the walk down the dedicated First and Business Class jet bridge was empty save for me. I paused briefly to collect a copy of that day’s International New York Times and then proceeded on to the entrance.

A well turned out reception committee of three flight attendants was positioned at the entrance, set to greet both First and Business passengers at door 1L. I was assigned to suite – 1K – my favorite seat for westbound flights. No problem – just cross over and it’ll be the first suite on your left. Thanks! I know the way.

Cathay’s four-class 777-300s have just six First Class suites. As such, they can be a difficult seat to book – especially via award mileage. I am fortunate that as a single traveler, the odds of booking one of these suites increases exponentially as opposed to two or more people trying to book them a month or two out. A couple of years ago, two friends of mine were each able to get their First Class award suites, but they had to travel one day apart from one another.

In any event, it sure felt good to be back up here. After spending much of the year slumming about in First Class aboard various U.S. airlines, a suite such as 1K aboard Cathay’s 777 is a very nice reward for all of those hard earned miles I fly each year in order to make this possible.

Only two of us were booked up front this afternoon – each of us sat on opposite sides of the cabin - so I had plenty of room to spread out. I stashed my roll-a-bord next door in 1D while my shoes and jacket went in 1K. As Business Class passengers continued to filter through the cabin, I took my seat and spent a moment running through all my usual pre-flight seat function tests. That’s right. The time to make sure everything works is now while we’re still on the ground. Once you’re in the air, it’s a bit late to address most problems.

It’s worth noting that Cathay’s First Class seats have to be amongst the widest in the air. Seatguru puts their width at 36 inches and I don’t doubt it. Check it out!

Cathay Pacific’s First Class seat

Cathay Pacific’s First Class seat

Cathay Pacific’s First Class Suite from the rear looking forward

The suite itself – while not enclosed a la those of Emirates or Etihad – nonetheless offers an outstanding amount of personal space and privacy. Per my personal tastes I prefer the more open arrangement, so as you might imagine I’m quite pleased with the overall layout of Cathay’s First Class suites.

William was my steward this afternoon and it wasn’t long before he stopped by to introduce himself and offer me a pre-departure drink. Although I’m not a big fan of Champagne, I do have a healthy respect for tradition and that tradition is typically to commence any great First Class journey with a glass of your host’s proffered Champagne.

For many years now, Krug Grande Cuvée has been the Champagne of note in Cathay’s Intercontinental First Class cabins. This month Cathay claims to have changed it up with an offering of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006. No doubt fans of the Krug will be disappointed but, from my admittedly limited perspective, the Taittinger tastes about as good as most any other top flight Champagne.

Champagne Service

I should add – I’m not a total rube in these matters. I do feel like I can at least distinguish between a quality Champagne and a bottom shelf sparkling wine. But then, who wouldn’t be able to do so if the bottom of the spectrum was represented by the likes of Cooks or Franzia Brothers? One Champagne that I do remember liking immediately - enough to ask for a refill no less - was Louise Pommery, 1989 served on my very first flight aboard British Airways – a First Class turn between Los Angeles and London way back in 2002. I can still taste its buttery smooth effervescence even now. Mmmm… delicious! Then as now, a small plate of warmed mixed nuts accompanied today’s Champagne.

While I sat, sipped and savored, the usual array of pre-flight swag continued to be presented piece by piece – the amenity kit, the pajamas, the headset, the menu, a selection of magazines… Bring it on! Amenity kit aficionados will be pleased to see that in the interests of a more thorough report, I took a moment to photograph Cathay’s offering.

Cathay Pacific’s First Class Amenity Kit

Cathay Pacific’s First Class Amenity Kit Contents

Those same aficionados may be equally disappointed when I tell them that afterwards I repacked the contents of the kit and never opened it again, leaving it on board when I left. I carry most all of the toiletries I need in my daypack. Those items include floss, an electric toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste and a brush. Beyond that I’ve not much use for moisturizing creams and the like.

Menus were presented next. As one who considers International First Class inflight dining to be the pinnacle of inflight entertainment, this is a highly anticipated moment for me. I had to take a picture…

Champagne Service with First Class Menu

A full luncheon and a light dinner will be served on this 15 hour flight. Additionally some fairly substantial snack or light meal items will also be available anytime during the flight. That’s a lot of food to be eaten – much less perused - so you can imagine my excitement as I opened the menu booklet and took it all in…

Los Angeles to Hong Kong

Caviar and Champagne – a perfect match.
Served with traditional garnishes of blinis, chives, crème fraîche and chopped eggs


New England Clam Chowder
Smoked duck, dried cranberries, rock chive lettuce and raspberry vinaigrette

Braised Veal Cheek
Celeriac puree and caramelized baby carrots

Spiced Black Cod
Coconut lentils, lemon new potatoes and slow roasted cherry tomato sauce

Garden Pea Mint Ravioli
Char grilled red pepper and grana Padano


Kelp, mussel and spiny melon soup
Cold plate – pickled turnip

Hong Kong Style Chicken Curry
Stir-fried broccoli and steamed jasmine rice


Stilton Blue, Manchego, Camembert
Fresh seasonal berries and crème fraiche
Orange sweet curd soufflé, dolce de leche ice cream
Black sesame sweet soup


Assorted Bread
Butter and balsamic olive oil


Freshly Brewed Coffee

Also available are espresso, cappuccino, caffe latte

A selection of teas


* * * _  _ * * *


Braised pork and preserved vegetable in noodle soup
Grilled U.S. beef burger, onion confit, Kaiser roll and ketchup
Potato and peas samosa
Ice cream

* * * _  _ * * *



Fresh seasonal fruit


Chicken Supreme

Mushroom ragout, bread dumpling

Steamed Sea Bass
Golden garlic and spring onion, stir-fried kalian, carrots and steamed jasmine rice

Buffalo Mozzarella Ravioli
With roasted cherry tomato sauce


Maple pecan pie with caramel sauce


Assorted Bread
Butter and balsamic olive oil


Freshly Brewed Coffee

Also available are espresso, cappuccino, caffe latte

A selection of teas

We were 15 minutes late pushing off the gate and, once we finally did, we then had to taxi seemingly all the way down to Long Beach. LAX is spread out over a lot of territory and between having to taxi over to the other side of the airport plus allow a number of other planes to take spots ahead of us, we didn’t ultimately take to the air until almost 1:30pm. When the captain finally did push the 777’s twin throttles all the way forward and the two massive GE90-115B turbofans spooled up to their maximum thrust, it was music to my ears.

Hong Kong, here we come!

* * * _  _ * * *

Flight time for this 7,250 mile flight was initially projected at 14 hours and 46 minutes though as the trip progressed that projection would ultimately turn out be a bit optimistic. More on that later though. William has arrived and is waiting patiently for my luncheon and cocktail selections. I’ve informed him of our preference for a cocktail first and then luncheon maybe an hour or so into the flight. Now then, let’s check out those bar offerings…



Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006

White Wines
Olivier Leflaive Saint Aubin 1er Cru Remilly 2014
Palliser Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Red Wines
Spy Valley Envoy Johnson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015
Seghesio Family Vineyards Defiant Red Blend 2015
Ch teau Branaire-Ducru Saint Julien 2006

Dessert Wine
Lions de Suduiraut Sauternes 2015


Aperitifs and Cocktails

Campari * Martini Rosso * Martini Extra Dry * Tio Pepe Sherry *Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sweet Sherry*
Tanqueray Ten Gin *Bacardi Rum * Belvedere Vodka * Bloody Mary * Screwdriver

Chivas Regal 12 Year Old * Johnny Walker Blue Label * Canadian Club * Gentleman Jack Bourbon *
Glenmorangie Signet Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Tesseron Lot 76 Tradition

Cointreau * Drambuie * Kahlua * Bailey’s Irish Cream

International Selection

Signature Drinks

Cathay Delight
A kiwifruit based non-alcoholic drink with coconut milk and a touch of fresh mint
Pacific SunriseA refreshing combination of Champagne and Drambuie with a zest of orange and lemon

You know, I generally never touch alcohol at home until at least 6 or 7PM. For the most part that’s true even on football Sundays. For me at least, alcohol is an evening treat. Once in a great while I might splurge and have a Bloody Mary or a Screwdriver but for the most part I’m fine with water or coffee during the day. Today was no different. With nearly 15 hours of flight time ahead of us, there’ll be plenty of time to have an obligatory tumbler (or two!) of Johnny Walker Blue as well as a couple of fine wines with the meals.

For now I opted to start the festivities with one of my favorite non-alcoholic drinks – a Cathay Delight. I’ve been a big fan of this libation ever since my first one back in 2004 aboard one of Cathay’s A340-300s between Vancouver and Hong Kong. It’s light and refreshing but with a velvety texture thanks to the rich coconut milk that comprises its base. Mmmm… so good!

I love the first forty minutes or so of these long flights in First Class. Now that we’re finally airborne, we’ve adjusted our seats to a comfortable position, gratefully accepted that first glass of our favorite libation and can now begin to truly relax and unwind. As our First Class cabin crew moves unobtrusively about the cabin delivering drinks and taking meal orders, from the galley come the faint clinks of glass and cutlery as the promise of the wonderful inflight service ahead begins to be realized. Taking another sip from our drinks, we gaze out the window and revel in the magnificence of International First Class air travel… Ah… it is indeed a good life!

Cathay Delight

We were about an hour and fifteen minutes into the flight - just off the coast of Eureka/Arcata, California - when I alerted William that I was ready to commence the luncheon service. I had placed my meal orders earlier and was informed that upon alerting the crew, it’d be about fifteen minutes to get the first courses ready. No problem! I’ve got nowhere to go and fourteen hours to get there.

Following long established tradition, I chose to commence today’s meal service with a serving of caviar. Indeed, with only one exception, all of the caviar I’ve ever been served has been inflight. Most of these instances have been in International First Class but one time I enjoyed the full caviar service from the trolley while flying First Class aboard a Braniff International 727-100 between New York and Dallas. Caviar services used to be de rigueur amongst the world’s finest airlines but these days only a handful of international airlines still offer a proper caviar service. Thankfully, one of those airlines is Cathay Pacific.

I can tell you that my appreciation of caviar was not love at first bite, but over the years I’ve definitely come to appreciate those little black eggs. Once upon a time Cathay served its caviar from the cart and featured top flight Oscietra Caviar from the Caspian Sea paired with luscious “Tsar Nicolaj” Balik Salmon. Alas, Cathay’s caviar service has taken a substantial hit over the years. The Oscietra has been downgraded to Calvisius Venise, a Siberian caviar that’s been farm raised in the Italian village of Calvisano. Though not as salty or dense as the Oscietra, for most people it’s still perfectly acceptable caviar. That includes me. What I really miss are the salmon slices, the warm new potatoes, the lemon half and the chopped onions.

Traditionally caviar is served with toast points, melba toast or blinis (little silver dollar sized buckwheat flour pancakes) as well as crème fraîche, chopped egg yolks and whites and chopped onions. Cathay offered all of these today except for the chopped onions which had been replaced with a sprinkle of chives blended in with the crème fraîche. It was not the same flavor as I’ve come to appreciate over the years.

Caviar Service on Cathay Pacific – 2018 Edition

One thing I really like though about Cathay’s service is that its bread basket includes slices of warmed garlic bread. Now if you really want to taste pure decadence, here’s what you do: Take a piece of the garlic bread and slather a nice sized portion of crème fraîche on it. Top that with the chopped eggs and – if you have it – chopped onion. Then spread a generous portion of caviar atop all of that. Then open wide and enjoy! Today I accompanied my caviar with a glass of Olivier Leflaive Saint Aubin 1er Cru Remilly 2014.

Oh. My. God. I’m not a big drinker of white wines but this wine fairly leapt out of the glass and immediately caressed my taste buds with a wonderful combination of crispness and flavor. There was nothing lingering about the flavor either. It was immediate and delicious! I see a bottle retails for about $35.00 USD. I hope I can find two or three of them when I return home.

Right. On to the soup then! Who can turn down New England Clam Chowder? Maybe a few New Yorkers perhaps but for me it has always been one of my favorite soups. Cathay’s version had all of the flavor but was lacking in the essential thickness of a proper chowdah. Still, it was more than palatable though I would’ve appreciated a packet or two of oyster crackers. Next time.

New England Clam Chowder

Moving right along, William next delivered an artistically presented salad of smoked duck and dried cranberries served atop rock chive lettuce and accented with raspberry vinaigrette. As airline salads go, this one was as flavorful as it was original. I was particularly impressed and perhaps even a bit taken aback at the amount of duck meat included in the salad. There was a lot – main course amounts by U.S. airline standards – that is if any U.S. airlines actually still served duck. Back in the good old days of thirty five years past, United used to serve a very passable Duck a l’Orange with wild rice. This was not a transcon entrée but rather a staple on the Chicago to Denver flights that I flew quite often back then. But I digress…

Smoked Duck and Cranberry Salad

Smoked Duck and Cranberry Salad

Alright then, I’m ready for the main course. This was not a hard choice for me. I’d had the veal cheek on my New York to Hong Kong flight two years ago. It was disappointing in that it comprised only about 2 ounces of actual meat. Braised Veal Embryo Cheek. No thanks. I’ll stick to loins from now on. I’m not a big cod fan though the coconut lentils did briefly capture my fancy. Garden Pea Mint Ravioli? Oooo - serious vegetarian commitment for that one. Not me, brother.

So then, let’s go with the Hong Kong Style Chicken Curry. Here’s what I was served:

Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong Style Chicken Curry

I am not enough of a Chinese food connoisseur to truly appreciate just what exactly “Hong Kong Style” means as opposed to other culinary styles with which I’m reasonably familiar such as Hunan or Szechuan styles. I guess I was simply hoping that my meal would be a bit more elaborate than a basic chicken curry accompanied by steamed broccoli and rice. Later, I even went on the internet to see what most Hong Kong Style Chicken Curries Looked like.

Lesson learned. Next time, order “Hong Kong Style” foods on flights originating out of Hong Kong. It would appear that what I was served today was an “LA Style” chicken curry or possibly even a “Barstow Style” version. Thankfully a small bowl of Lee Kum Kee Guilin Chili Sauce helped make this dish somewhat more palatable.

When William returned to clear off my plates and ask if I’d care for dessert, I had to pass – or at last pause for an hour or so. I was seriously full.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this in previous trip reports but it’s worth reiterating. I normally never eat this much at home. Not unless it’s Thanksgiving or Super Bowl Sunday. When flying in International First Class however, I’m in festival mode. Let’s party! I want to try everything. International First Class air travel is a rare and cherished treat that I only get to experience two or three times a year so I want to take full advantage of it.

Pity the stuffy old farts that yawn at the prospect another First Class flight. We have a few of them right here at FlyerTalk, most notably at a couple of popular European airline forums. As one member succinctly put it: “They are so blasè about it all as they have zillions of miles from their work related travel and they expect forelock-tipping and have just lost the excitement of it all.

As for me – I have loved commercial flight since I was just a small child. Sure, we all like sitting up in Business or First but I really, really like it. The allure of First Class travel has always been strong for me – so strong that as a kid I used to spend hours writing off all the airlines asking for brochures about their new 747s and DC-10s as well as any brochures about their inflight service. Back in the 1970s most airlines were only too happy to oblige, sending me all kinds of cool stuff. Back then it paid to market the quality of your inflight service because with most airfares being equal amongst airlines – even internationally – the best way for an airline to differentiate itself was with its inflight service and amenities. All of those brochures were seriously intoxicating. Where other boys my age might have fantasized about growing up to become a sports star or maybe a rock star, I was content to let the chips fall where they may in those regards (I was into sports and music, too) but when it came to idle daydreaming – like in the middle of Mr. Jordan’s 3rd period Latin class – I was more than content to imagine myself sipping cocktails in the upstairs lounge with the favored few. And I’ve worked hard to turn those daydreams of yesteryear into reality – having logged over 600000 miles in International First Class as opposed to another million or so in the so-so product we call “First Class” here in the U.S.

So then, for me to be sitting up here in Suite 1K cruising high above the Pacific Ocean aboard one of the world’s finest airlines with a glass of fine Chardonnay at hand while taking in such a beautiful day from 38,000 feet… life could hardly be finer. This is what First Class is all about!

On a clear day, this flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong offers a fantastic view of the Pacific Rim, following the coast from Southern California all the way up along Alaska, down the Aleutians and along the Kamchatka Peninsula to Japan and then on down the Chinese coast to Hong Kong. I choose to sit on the right side of the aircraft to better take advantage of the scenery – if it can be seen. Unfortunately, most of our flight today – and by that I mean like about 85% of it – was over clouds or worse, up amidst high clouds and turbulence.

So then, what to do when you’ve finished lunch and there are still about 12 ½ hours left to fly? For some this is a nightmarish scenario but for me, it’s a great opportunity to take advantage of my seat’s multiple recline functions and simply relax. I’ve got books, magazines and today’s newspaper to read as well as a veritable cornucopia of entertainment options from TV to movies to games on Cathay’s excellent Studio CX.

To be sure, there are better IFE’s out there offering even more choices but hey – there’s no way I’d even come close to checking out even 5% of the total even if I dedicated myself to doing so straight from the start of the flight. As such, I don’t get too excited about this or that airline’s IFE. When you’re flying on any of the world’s top twenty or so airlines, all of the systems will generally provide more than enough options to keep you entertained.

For me, that meant starting out with a few rounds of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I like trivia but the problem for me with Cathay’s version is that many of the questions are oriented toward a British or Commonwealth audience. That I once managed to get all the way up to $64000 was more a factor of blind luck than real knowledge. Even so, I had a good time for a half hour or so before switching over to the movie selections.

Most of the time, I’m not a big fan of watching movies on airplanes. I’d rather wait until I get home where I can watch them on my ancient 120 lb. 29” Magnovox. You’d think I’d have upgraded to a proper flat screen TV by now – Lord knows I can certainly afford to given how affordable good 50” HD flat screens have become - but I have a soft spot for things that work well over a long period of time. I mean, that old TV has been like a reliable old friend over the years – always starting and never a problem with picture or reception or anything else. To simply discard it for a younger, prettier model would be unthinkable. My truck is 17 years old and still going strong. If I were to win the Powerball lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t be buying a new truck. And I wouldn’t move out of my cabin, either. But I might stop mileage running and just buy the tickets outright.

William stopped by to see how things were going before retiring to the crew rest area for a little R&R. We discussed the three cheeses on offer – I was familiar with the Stilton and Camembert but had never heard of Manchego. From William’s description it sounded a bit milder than I like, so I requested a plate of the Stilton and Camembert along with a glass of the Sauternes to wash them down. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of dessert wines but as Cathay has stopped offering Port, it was either the Sauternes or something stronger.

Cheese and Sauternes over the Gulf of Alaska

Tracking directly over Kodiak


Somewhere amidst all of this, I discovered Francis Ford Coppola’s 1971 classic, The Godfather. I remember watching this movie at the Bedford Playhouse when I was just a kid. It is truly a classic in American cinema and even more to the point for today’s flight – it ran 2 hours and 47 minutes.

* * * _  _ * * *

You know, if I were sitting at home waiting for the hours to pass by I would probably be much more aware of the passage of time. Somehow on this flight, time seems to just fly by. Over the course of the flight I took four or five strolls to the back of the plane just to loosen up and get some exercise. A lot of people are worried about DVTs and perhaps rightfully so. In my case, I just know it’s not good to be sitting for so long, so I make it a point to get up and move around as unobtrusively as possible during the flight.

I mentioned earlier in this report that I’ve never flown anything but First Class on Cathay Pacific. That streak has stretched to 30 flights and 170000 miles so far. After today’s strolls through the Business Class cabin, I’m going to do my best to maintain that streak. Certainly on a long intercontinental flight, I can’t imagine sitting anywhere other than First Class – especially on Cathay. While on some airlines the differences between First and Business Class are becoming increasingly blurred, on Cathay’s 777-300 the two classes are as different as night and day.

The entire ambience of the First Class cabin is all about space, peace and quiet. To walk down the length of the Business Class and then part those heavy curtains and return to the rarified atmosphere of the First Class cabin is akin to coming up from the depths and finally emerging above water. It’s not that Cathay’s Business Class is all that bad – on the contrary I should imagine it rates fairly well amongst most major airlines – but in the same amount of space where six suites exist in First Class, I would estimate you could fit 12-16 Business Class suites.

I love the spaciousness of Cathay’s First Class cabin.

* * * _  _ * * *

By the time The Godfather had ended, we were most of the way down the Aleutian Island chain with about 8 more hours to go before reaching Hong Kong. In fact, I noted that by the time we drew even with Adak – an old naval base near the end of the Aleutians – we’d been in flight for just under 7 hours.

My strategy for this flight was to stay awake for most of the flight, get maybe four or five hours of sleep, and then catch up on the rest at my hotel tonight. As with any flight on Cathay, my strategy also included partaking of a bowl of Cathay’s special mid-flight noodle soup. These soups are not the same as the ones you get with lunch. They are much heartier noodle based soups and are presented in a special black lacquered bowl. Above all, they represent some of the finest soups I’ve ever had – be it in the air or on the ground. Today’s soup is the Braised pork and preserved vegetable in noodle soup.

Midflight Noodle Soup

Later, I spent about 45 minutes entertaining the purser and the other First Class FA with some of my many pictures of inflight meal services as well as a few shots from back home in Alaska. As you might imagine, they were particularly interested in pictures depicting Cathay’s meals but they were downright awestruck with the ones depicting Emirate’s meal services. It was fun to roll out some of those old photos, all the more so for the ladies’ enthusiasm.

Shortly thereafter, I had my seat converted to its sleeping configuration. The time was nearing 11:00pm back in Los Angeles so it wasn’t hard to get ready for bed despite the bright sun shining beyond my window shades. William had returned from his rest and I asked him to wake me with enough time to enjoy the full dinner service before our arrival in Hong Kong. As such I placed my dinner order before turning in for the night. Cathay’s suites have a superb arrangement of reading lights which enabled me to read easily for a half hour or so before finally lapsing into a comfortable four hour nap.

Bedtime on Cathay Pacific

Perhaps it was the anticipation but I awoke on my own with just over an hour and a half left in the flight. The timing was perfect. As I trundled off to the lav to freshen up, the crew returned my suite to its daytime configuration and, within minutes of my return, was ready with the table settings.

Raising my window shade, I was surprised to see the sun was well on its way to calling it a day. But then, most of the other times I’ve flown westbound on this route have been in March when the days were a bit longer. In any event, the setting sun was pretty but hardly awe inspiring.

Sunset over the East China Sea

The second meal on this fifteen hour flight is not as large or elaborate as the first one. I’ve had people ask “How could you possibly eat another meal after that big lunch?” Easy. Aside from my explanation earlier in this report as to why I want to take advantage of all of the service offered, let’s also take a look at the timeline for a moment. Remember, this is a fifteen hour flight. Most of us eat three meals a day, generally around 7:00am, 1:00pm and 7:00pm give or take an hour or two. And for you people who say “I don’t eat breakfast”, you really ought to start doing so. It’s the most important meal of the day! You’ll note that there are typically about 6 hours between meals. Yes, I did have a good sized breakfast and lunch, a bowl of soup about 8:30pm California local time and now here it was the equivalent of 2:00am back there, while approaching 6:00pm in Hong Kong. For some people, this light dinner might help their body clocks adjust to the fact that it’s currently dinner time in Hong Kong. Me – my plan upon landing is to catch a bus to my hotel and knock off a few more hours of sleep. As such, this meal is like a late night trip to an all-night diner after a long night of partying.

So then, for my first course I skipped the proffered fruit plate and replaced it with a serving of potato and pea samosas from the mid-flight snack menu. This was a good call. Those samosas were hot and crispy – almost as if they’d only just been removed from the deep fat fryer. Dee-licious!

Samosa Appetizer

Next up came the Chicken Supreme – an elegant sounding name for what was essentially a baked chicken thigh. It was very good though – moist, tender and reasonably flavorful made all that much nicer with the addition of the delicious mushroom ragout.

Chicken Supreme

Chicken Supreme ambience shot

Dessert? You’ve come this far – might as well go whole hog. Bring it on! With ice cream, please.

Maple Pecan Pie

I accompanied the dessert with a small snifter of cognac. I don’t have a lot of experience with cognac and to be honest it’s not exactly a favorite of mine. Still, flying on airlines like Cathay provides an excellent opportunity to sample some fine wines and liqueurs that I would rarely have a chance to taste back home. As for the cognac, a bottle of Tesseron Lot 76 Tradition, I’d have to say the jury’s still out. Some things – like the flavor and texture of caviar – take time to learn to properly appreciate. I’d like to have a few more sessions with this and other cognacs because to be honest, I’ve rarely ever drunk it.

Although the original flight time was projected at just less than fifteen hours, strong headwinds over the far western Aleutians combined with air traffic delays coming into Hong Kong resulted in a projected arrival time of 7:50pm – almost an hour behind schedule. Passengers with tight connections responded with consternation – I could hear the clamor in the back when the captain announced our expected arrival at the gate. The crew responded by moving some of the Business Class passengers up into the four remaining First Class suites to help them disembark faster. Somewhat surprisingly, William stopped by to ask me if this was okay. I mean, I suppose it was polite protocol on his part to ask but honestly, what am I going to say? No! Send them back! Of course, I was totally cool with it and would have appreciated the same courtesy had I been in a similar situation.

So what happened after we’d landed and hooked up with the jet bridge at 1L? The purser still held even those tight connection passengers back in order to allow myself and the one other First Class passenger to disembark first. I said a quick good bye and thanks for a great flight and then got out of the way as a couple dozen connecting passengers stampeded past.

Thankfully, we’d parked at gate 2 so it wasn’t too long of a walk to immigration. Unfortunately, an apparently full Air France 787-9 had arrived just before us and as I arrived at the immigration hall I could see quite a large crowd had gathered. I joined the maddening crush of humanity just as the last of the Air France passengers - all of them festooned with round orange stickers - were being herded into the Visitor’s lane.

Give credit to the Hong Kong immigration folks though. Despite quite an imposing group of passengers snaking through five or six long switchback lanes, I doubt if I spent more than 15 to 20 minutes total in that line. I remember once being in an immigration queue at Manchester with only about 15-20 passengers off an inbound Pakistan International Airways flight ahead of me. Given language and potential terrorism issues, that line took considerably longer to navigate.

Although I gave strong consideration to just crashing in the airport (I know a great spot downstairs by the 50 series gates) I had a pretty long layover, so why not splurge and get a hotel?

My hotel for the night was the Harbour Plaza Resort, located about 40 minutes by courtesy shuttle bus from HKIA. My timing was well-nigh perfect. Once I had cleared customs, I headed for the hotel’s kiosk on the arrivals level and was told that a bus would be departing in 15 minutes.

Beats sleeping in the airport in a hot, muggy night

The view from my window

Last edited by Seat 2A; Oct 19, 18 at 1:26 pm
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Oct 7, 18, 9:44 pm
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Day Eleven
Cathay Pacific First Class ~ 777-300 ~ Hong Kong, CH to Bangkok, TH ~ 210p – 410p
Thailand Railways First Class ~ Bangkok, TH to Vientiane, LA ~ 800p – 645a

Rather than sleep in, shower, enjoy a leisurely breakfast and catch the 10:00am bus to HKIA, I instead caught the 8:00am bus with the plan being to shower and eat breakfast in whatever First Class lounge was most convenient to either the gate or my mood at the time.

It was a little after 9:15 by the time I’d cleared the security and immigration formalities. The proximity of The Wing and my desire to get lounging ASAP made the decision a simple one. Ten minutes later I was Winging it in one of Cathay’s excellent shower rooms. Well-travelled readers who’ve visited Cathay’s facilities here in Hong Kong will recall the giant sunflower showerheads that deliver a full on deluge bordering on a tropical monsoon downpour – but with adjustable temperature control. Ah… now that’s a proper shower!

Later, I repaired to the Haven Restaurant where a delicious collection of breakfast hors d’oeuvres was followed by a plate of Eggs Benedict – all of it washed down with some surprisingly good coffee. I like my coffee rich, earthy and strong. Think dark roast Sumatran or Sulawesi. The coffee I was served in the Haven was dark and reasonably rich – which is saying a lot by airline lounge standards.

Breakfast Hors D’Oeuvres

Eggs Benedict at The Haven

Now I’m certainly amongst the first to acknowledge that lounging is an integral and cherished part of the First Class travel experience. That said, it’s generally not so cherished that I always feel a need to check out all the lounges available to me via a lounge hop. I used to. Years ago, my level of excitement for both the lounge experience and reporting upon it (Oh Boy! Wait’ll the Trip Report Forum regulars hear about this!) might have compelled me to go check out some of Cathay’s other fine lounges at HKG. These days, after having logged over 1.2 million miles in International First Class alone – not to mention having reported on it all via over seventy trip reports totaling over 1.2 million words in print – it no longer seems so important. The result being that once I’d settled in after breakfast with a spacious table and decent Wi-Fi connection, I was good to go until boarding was finally posted at gate 25.

Waiting at the gate was B-KQW, a three year old 777-367 – one of the newest 777s in Cathay’s fleet and the 50th individual 777 I’d flown to date. Looking around the gate lounge at my fellow passengers, I got the distinct sense that few if any of them appreciated B-KQW in the same sense that I had. 777-300 or Convair 880 – whatever - as long as it gets us there safely.

777-300 B-KQW awaits boarding at gate 25

Despite this being a 1060 mile regional flight, the initial pre-flight service mirrored that of a much longer international flight with the exception of amenity kits and pajamas. Champagne (Taittinger) was poured and menus were presented. The menu indicated a Refreshment but by most any other airline’s standard, this was a full-on luncheon service.

Hong Kong to Bangkok

Parma ham, baked tomato, feta cheese and Portobello mushroom


Braised Chicken and Abalone

Served with broccoli, carrot and steamed jasmine rice

Braised Lamb Shoulder
Red capsicum, green peas, roasted fennel and parsnip puree

Afternoon Tea Set
Scone, clotted cream and strawberry preserves, assorted savories and sweets

Assorted bread and butter

* * * _  _ * * *

White Chocolate mousse and rose jelly
Banana toffee parfait

Freshly brewed coffee and a selection of teas

Flight time to Bangkok was projected at two hours and twenty some odd minutes. As always, it was a cloudy day in Hong Kong. Just once I’d like to be here on a clear, sunny day. At least the clouds were fairly high, so as we climbed away from Lantau Island I got some nice views of the coastal communities which from previous experience had always been shrouded in low clouds and rain.

Climbing away from Hong Kong

Service began just nineteen minutes after takeoff. Well alrighty then – let’s check out that menu again. Lamb! I’ve always liked lamb and even though it rarely ever tastes as good in the air as it does on the ground, I was willing to give it a try once again. For dessert I requested the Afternoon Tea Set, operating on the assumption that it was mainly a scone with clotted cream – something I hadn’t enjoyed since my last westbound trans-Atlantic flight on BA back in 2008. When informed that the tea set also included a plate of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, I said why not serve them to me first, followed by the starter and then the main.

That was a good call. The hors d’oeuvres plate included a miniature hot chicken pie, a shrimp puff and my old favorite – a salmon and caper swirl atop a toast round. I accompanied this with a glass of Seghesio Family Vineyards Defiant Red Blend 2015, which I found a bit too defiant for my tastes. With the Parma Ham starter, I switched to the Ch teau Branaire-Ducru Saint Julien 2006. Ah… much nicer.

The hors d’oeuvres plate

The Parma Ham starter

Alright then – bring on the lamb! I was presented an artfully arranged plate with a colorful variety of food – yellow parsnips, green peas, red pepper, white onion and a nicely sized portion of dark, delicious lamb. A jar of mint jelly was presented and served followed by another pour of wine. The lamb still didn’t taste like the leg of lamb roasts I remember so fondly from childhood visits to my grandparents’ house, but it was near fall off the bone tender and overall a very nice meal.

Lamb Luncheon at 38000’

Dessert Collection

Thunderheads began to gather about an hour out of Bangkok. Eventually they made for a scenic though occasionally tumultuous descent into Bangkok.

Thunderheads on descent into Bangkok

Our pilots navigated the descent through those ominous looking clouds like the pros they were and shortly thereafter executed a textbook smooth landing at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. I was doubly thankful for the fact that we parked at a gate along the main terminal building rather than out on one of the concourses. The result was a much shorter walk of just 400 yards or so to Immigration as opposed to probably twice that or more had we parked out on the concourses. Cathay had provided us with Fast Track type passes to expedite the immigration process – something I sincerely appreciated while at the same time wondering why it hadn’t been available at Cathay’s home airport in Hong Kong.

* * * _  _ * * *

Per the recommendation on the train travel website Seat61.com, I booked my regional train reservations through a travel agency called 12go.asia.com. They were excellent in every respect. As part of my train reservation to Laos I was also able to book private transportation from Suvarnabhumi direct to Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station. I’m sure I could have caught a cab for 400 or so Baht less, but hey – I’m traveling First Class here – so why not go whole hog.

Emerging from Customs, I stopped to exchange $150.00 USD and then made my way down the length of level 2 to door 4 where I found my name posted amidst a collection of large hand lettered signs. As I paused to ponder how next to proceed, a lady approached and verified my identity. I then followed her outside the terminal where she waved down a black SUV type vehicle. The interior was comfortable and blissfully air-conditioned – much nicer than a ride in an average taxi. I couldn’t help but reflect back on my last taxi ride in Bangkok – 31 years ago in an open-air tuk-tuk. It was nothing if not exciting. Back to the present - we made good time through the city traffic and the driver dropped me off at 12go.asia.com’s office, located directly across the boulevard from Hua Lamphong Station.

Inside the office I was joined by a half dozen or so backpackers of European and American origin. Aside from the office staff, I was the only one not wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The staff – all two of them - was friendly and capable. They quickly located my ticket and explained the boarding procedure. They also recommended eating beforehand as the food in the diner – in their words - “sucked”. By the time I exited the office it was approaching 6:30pm. Train time was 8:00pm.

Although I could clearly see the monolithic Hua Lamphong station perched across the road, getting there involved making my way across the large busy boulevard, which was actually more like a convergence point of four or five different roads. There were five different crosswalks to be navigated and only one of them involved a stoplight, set back about 100 feet from where I crossed. The temperature outside was typical for Bangkok – about 85°F with commensurate humidity, so you can only imagine my surprise and delight upon entering the station to find that it was in fact air-conditioned, if only mildly so.

Hua Lamphong Station

The station “Waiting Room”

The entire central hall of the station was a giant waiting room. At one end was a large departures board with train departures listed in alternating Thai and English lettering. I took a moment to locate my train. Ah… there it is: Train 25, the 8:00pm Express to Nong Khai departing from Track 3. Boarding was indicated to commence at 7:30pm. Right. Let’s go have a look at the station then.

Ringing the outside of the main floor were two rows of seats. Most all of them were occupied. Some of the seats had signs indicating they were reserved for monks. The monks weren’t hard to miss with their orange robes. The open floor area in the middle of the station was occupied by all manner of humanity; most of them seated in small groups picnic style on the floor. I was reminded of Grateful Dead concerts I’d attended 40 years ago at smaller auditoriums like Winterland or The Kaiser in Oakland. At one end of the floor was a table with an ornate religious display. People would regularly stop by it to pay their respects as well as drop off donations in one of two collection boxes.

I took a walk around the perimeter of the station floor. Although there was a fairly large food court off to one side, it didn’t look particularly clean. A Dunkin’ Donuts stand was also available, but its only offerings were coffee and donuts. I decided to have a look a bit later at a couple of eateries I’d spotted outside the station on my way in.

* * * _  _ * * *

When I first visited Thailand back in 1987, train travel was generally regarded as a transportation means of last resort. The cars were old, the tracks poor and the overall operation inconsistent. I’m happy to report however that times have indeed changed for the better, and considerably so at that.

In the summer of 2016 the State Railway of Thailand unveiled 39 brand new freshly delivered train cars. These were the first of 115 new cars ordered from the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation and China CNR Corporation. The new modern cars feature seat- mounted screens for watching TV and movies and a USB port for battery recharging. Also appreciated are the modern airplane-style vacuum toilets, a significant upgrade over the old style ones that deposited waste directly on to the tracks below.

Nine of the 115 carriages ordered are dedicated First Class sleeper cars, complete with air-conditioned two-berth cabins that include in-cabin TV screens with seven channels of programming plus a GPS screen that displays location and speed as well as up-to-date arrival information for all down-line stations. Passengers in all classes can also order food and beverages via a communications system right at their seats. That latter benefit was not available on either of the two Thai trains that I rode, though on my trip from Chiang Mai down to Bangkok an employee from the dining car came through the First Class cabins taking meal orders to be delivered later directly to your room.

Having been informed by the locals that the onboard food was not that good, I headed across a small side street to a bright and clean looking noodle shop where I purchased that old Thai classic – a plate of Pad Thai to go. Returning to the station, I had only a brief wait until boarding was announced for train 25 at precisely 7:30pm. Before heading out to the train, I stopped by a local kiosk and bought two exquisitely chilled bottles of mineral water for 12 Bhat each (about 43 cents in US dollars).

The Nong Khai Express awaits

A uniformed car attendant along with a man dressed in a military type uniform met me at the entrance to my car. My tickets – which included a separate portion indicating I’d paid extra to have the compartment to myself – were thoroughly scrutinized by both men, after which I was assisted on to the train. That meant they were kind enough to pass my little 22” suitcase up the steep and narrow entranceway once I’d reached the vestibule platform. Then the car attendant led me to my compartment.

As he hit the button to open the pneumatically operated door leading into the hallway, I was greeted by a deliciously chilled blast of refrigerated air. Ahh… Any of you who’ve been to Southeast Asia know how hot and humid it can get – especially noticeable to a guy like me who’s always lived in a cool dry environment. With that air-conditioning alone, this train ride was off to a great start.

Inside my compartment, everything was exactly as it had looked in all of the photos and videos I’d scanned in the weeks leading up to this trip. Each compartment featured hideous fuschia colored seats and pale faux wood paneling. Also included were a sink, a mirrored medicine cabinet and two wall mounted 14” flat screen TVs featuring eight channels – only two of which actually worked. Thankfully, one of those was the GPS channel – akin to a sky map on an airplane. The other was a Thai language documentary of some sort.

First Class Compartment

First Class Compartment

It was 8 O’clock on the dot when I felt the first mild lurch as the lead locomotive powered up and eased us out of the station. I was dining on my Pad Thai (good, but not as good as the Thai House in Fairbanks) and paused to watch as the lights of Bangkok passed by with ever increasing speed.

On that note, it should be stated that this was not a fast train. I would guestimate that we averaged about 40-50 mph throughout most of the trip. Me – I’m fine with that as I’m really not in a hurry. Indeed, one of the things I like best about train travel is the slower pace of it. Relax. Enjoy the journey.

Once, I purchased a ticket aboard Amtrak’s Acela – so far as know the fastest train in North America. I didn’t go very far – just from Boston to Providence – but there was a small portion of that short sector where we did indeed reach 150 mph. It was announced over the train’s PA system. Now I know 150 mph is a sedate stroll compared to the top speeds attained by some trains in Europe and Asia, but the one thing I remember about it all is that I wasn’t particularly impressed. Nearby trees flashed by but otherwise the ride was about the same as any other train traveling at half that speed.

Mind you, I understand the attraction of fast trains. They’re great for those of us who just want to get there faster and could care less about the enroute scenery. These days so many people are wired into their MP3s or I-pads that they probably wouldn’t complain if the windows were painted over. As for me, it’s not like I spend my entire trip looking wistfully out the window. Indeed, much of the time as with tonight’s train ride, I’m content to stretch out with a good book and just enjoy the sensation and indeed the privilege of being able to actually lie down as opposed to merely recline my seat.

Speaking of lying down, we were about 30 minutes out of Bangkok when the car porter stopped by to make up my bed. It was a pretty simple procedure. First, he lifted the bottom couch seat and pulled it fully out from the wall. Next he retrieved a set of folded up cushions (much like you’d see with summer patio furniture) that were stored in a nook above the doorway. These were unfolded and placed atop the bottom seat bench. Then he took a sheet and deftly wrapped and tucked it around one end of the “mattress”, pulled it down to the other end and repeated the wrap and tuck procedure. Blankets were available but I declined in favor of my own. Two pillows were included with the bedding. Lying down atop all this, I found the cushions not particularly soft but certainly better than lying atop the bare seat bottom.

When I think of the most comfortable railroad beds I’ve ever slept in, they were all on older 1950s era trains. Back in 1984 I spent two nights in a roomette aboard the Mexican National Railways “Frontera” between Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. Those old post-war cars were supremely comfortable with real mattresses and wide, full length beds. ViaRail up in Canada still operates many 1950s era cars. The widest beds on the train can be found on the lower berths. Those beds, in combination with ViaRail’s wonderfully soft and warm duvets, make for a wonderful sleep. Honorable mention goes out to an ancient post WW1 sleeper I rode between Santiago and Puerto Montt, Chile back in the early 90s. What a great old car!

I considered taking a walk up to the dining car just to have a look but it was approaching 9:00pm and I’d had a long day, starting from my hotel in Hong Kong and continuing on through to the airport, the flight down to Bangkok and the trip out to Hua Lamphong Station. Now here I was comfortably stretched out while reading John Grisham’s latest effort... why not just roll with it? I read for another hour before turning off the lights and sleeping comfortably until about 5:30am.

Day Twelve
Thailand Railways First Class ~ Bangkok, TH to Nong Khai, TH ~ Arrival at 645a
Thailand Railways Economy Class ~ Nong Khai to Thanaleng, TH ~ 7:30am to 7:50am
Local Mini-Van ~ Thanaleng to Vientiane, Laos ~ 8:15am to 9:00am

When I woke up at about 5:30am, the TV monitor indicated it was 28°C inside, 29° outside. That’s too hot – at least for me. Back home I turn my Toyo stove down to 61°F at night. Ah… perfect! In any event, I suspect that the temperature may have been adjusted during the night to better reflect temperatures that the locals are comfortable sleeping in.

Out my window, the lush green countryside of the Thai/Laotian frontier rolled by under a rising sun. I took a couple of pictures.

Good Morning, Thailand

Sunrise in the jungle

The GPS channel on my TV indicated that we’d be arriving into Nong Khai about 10 minutes late, at about 7:00am. I wasn’t concerned. I’d just grab a taxi to my hotel and go from there. I’d even gone to Google translation services to print out my request to take me to my hotel in the local lingo.

When I purchased these tickets from the 12go.asia website, I did so by indicating I wanted to travel from Bangkok to Vientiane. The train I booked is one of the options – the First Class one – that came up. As for Nong Khai, I assumed it was either the station name in Vientiane or it was the name of a Vientiane suburb. I was wrong.

The first indication of my error came upon our arrival at Nong Khai. There wasn’t much to the place – just a small station out in a rural setting. I’d read that the population of Vientiane was a little over 200,000 and nothing about the area surrounding Nong Khai suggested a population approaching even a tiny fraction of that. There were vast expanses of jungle and savannah cut by a single road accented with a few small buildings and a shack or two.

I climbed down from my sleeper and made my way on to the platform of the open air station. A few passengers – maybe a dozen people – appeared to have reached their destination with either private cars awaiting them or one of the few taxis parked outside the station. A large wooden sign seemed to show that we were still in Thailand, with an arrow indicating that the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was down the tracks thataway. 

Approaching the Laotian border

Quite a few people were lining up at a ticket window and purchasing tickets to God knows where, so I figured I’d better investigate. It was abundantly clear that our present location was not where I wanted to be. At the window I indicated I was going to Vientiane and pointed down the tracks in the direction of the arrow on the sign. The agent nodded vigorously and, in broken but thankfully understandable English, indicated I should board the rusty old railcar heading to Thanaleng, up on the Mekong River which serves as the border between Thailand and Laos. The ticket price was 300 Thai Baht or about $9.00 USD.

There was no question as to which train to board. My inbound from Bangkok had already moved on – presumably to reposition itself for the return trip to Bangkok. Across a couple of tracks sat an old, dirty and battered looking two car consist – a self-contained motorized railcar that looked as if it dated back to the bad old days of the Vietnam war. Or before.

My train awaits…

I trundled myself and my bag across the rough tracks and made my way up the steep stairway into the car. A conductor at the doorway was kind enough to pass my bag up to me. Inside, I joined maybe a dozen passengers scattered about on straight backed pale blue padded seating. They cars smelled old. They didn’t smell bad, necessarily, but the smell reminded me of the old school busses I used to ride when I was a kid. A prominently posted sign warned against sitting in the stairway or up on the roof. I selected a seat to myself and settled in for the ride – wherever we were going.

Local railcar ambience…

Mind where you sit…

At 7:30am we were off. The railcar sounded like a car, shifting into higher gears as our speed increased. It didn’t increase too much though – maybe 25-30 mph max. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River. On the other side lay Laos.

Crossing the Mekong River…

The railcar continued across the bridge, stopping at a long and low building that served as Immigration and Customs for Laos. Everybody who’d gotten off ahead of me was filling out forms at the standing tables nearby. A man handed me a form and I set to filling it out. The form was for a Laotian visa which can be issued on the spot for 1500 Baht or about $50.00 USD. My passport was inspected, a large sticker attached and stamped and just like that I was good to go. Where to, though?

A man at the end of the building waved me down and directed me to a minivan parked just outside the facility. He spoke good English and told me he would take me into Vientiane. Right on. There were only four of us onboard – myself, a girl from Germany and a couple from Denmark, if I recall. I took a seat in the front and settled in for the ride. Compared to some minivans I’ve ridden in places like Namibia or Ecuador where they tend to pack in one or two people beyond recommended capacity, this ride was positively spacious and comfortable. It was a nice sunny day and I enjoyed the 30 minute drive through Vientiane’s frumpy suburbs and on into the much cleaner and pleasant downtown area.

I had expected to be dropped off at a central station of some kind but was pleasantly surprised when, after hearing the driver tell the German girl he could take her to the airport for an additional 200 Baht, he then agreed to take me directly to my hotel for the same amount.

I was staying at the interestingly named S Park Design Hotel. I found the property on Hotels.com and was able to book a king bed suite for just $68.00 USD. It was a bit too early to check-in when I arrived but management was kind enough to allow me to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast in the dining room while I waited. It was a pretty nice spread, too. Besides the usual continental breakfast items, there were eggs and omelets cooked to order as well as a variety of local dishes including a tasty chicken curry. I remember the coffee being especially delicious with this wonderful chocolaty aftertaste. After breakfast, I used one of the empty tables to put in a bit of work on this trip report until hotel management informed me that my room was ready.

My suite at the S Park Design Hotel

I knew that my time in Laos would be limited, but that was alright. I was happy to have just a taste of the country for now with the very real possibility of coming back here for 7-10 days in next year or two. I had read that Vientiane was a wonderful place in the days of French colonial rule and I wanted to check out the old town area with its French colonial villas and administration buildings. I spent my first afternoon doing exactly that. The next day I caught a taxi out to the famous Pha That Luang, generally regarded as the most important national monument in Laos. Like most wats or temples in Southeast Asia, it is an architecturally remarkable structure with its beautiful grounds and stunning gold spire. I grabbed my camera to take some pictures only to discover that – oh no! – I’d forgotten to remove my film card from my laptop! Oh well. My memories remain vivid and will no doubt fuel a return visit.

The only downside to my visit was that it was the last day of the Laotian Lunar Holiday and just down the street from my hotel was a nightclub that pumped out annoyingly loud music until late into the evening. We’re talking pulsing bass and screechy pop voices for the most part. It reverberated through the hotel and, as my room up on the sixth floor and faced the street the club was on, it was particularly bad there. I actually talked to management about relocating into a smaller room on the opposite side of the building. They sent someone up to show me a couple of possibilities. There was no escaping that pulsing bass though, and so I stayed where I was. Thankfully the music stopped about 11:00pm.
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Last edited by Seat 2A; Oct 8, 18 at 2:34 pm
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:47 pm
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Day Thirteen
Lao Airlines Economy Class ~ A320-200 ~ Vientiane, LA to Bangkok, TH ~ 640p – 740p

Given the late departure time of my flight to Bangkok, this day started with a visit to the Pha That Luang temple that was mentioned above. Returning to the hotel at about 3:00pm, I took a late lunch and then got a ride from the hotel staff straight to the airport. The airport is very close to the downtown area and so was only a ten minute ride from the hotel. I was charged the equivalent of about $5.00 USD for the ride.

The International Terminal at Vientiane

After having flown 194 airlines, you’d think I’d be nonchalant over the prospect of flying aboard yet another new airline. Yawn… flown one, flown ‘em all… Nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact that I’m actually aware I’ve flown upon 194 different airlines should tell you all you need to know about my level of enthusiasm for such things. My passion burns as bright today as it did in my younger years. Each airline is unique to me and the prospect of experiencing a flight aboard a new and different one still comes with a lot of anticipation.

Even though I’ve flown aboard many single aisle Airbus aircraft, I haven’t flown Lao Airlines’ version. As such, there’s still plenty of excitement and anticipation as I board what is for me a new and different airplane. What’s it look like inside? What’s Business Class look like? 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!

Lao Airlines’ Airbus A320-200

Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport consists of a small domestic terminal and a new international terminal. I arranged to arrive two hours early in order to check out the airport lounge operated by Lao – Japan Airport Terminal Services. This lounge is not part of the Priority Pass network and so would have cost me $14.00 USD to use.

Lao Airlines’ check-in counter was just opening as I arrived at the terminal. Thankfully only a handful of people were in line ahead of me and the check-in process seemed to go fairly quickly. I was processed quickly with no questions about keeping my roll-a-bord with me as a carry-on. Right! Off to the lounge!

Not so fast, Bucko! Unfortunately, the lounge was on the airside of the security checkpoint. A security guard posted at the entrance to the immigration hall informed me that passengers on my flight would not be allowed to enter until 6:00pm. Whaaat? That’s practically boarding time! Still, his Ingrish wasn’t good and my Lao was non-existent so further debate seemed pointless if not impossible. I headed back into the non-air conditioned main terminal and found a small café where a cold bottle of Beerlao Gold proved to be as tasty as it was refreshing. A couple of electric fans also contributed to a more comfortable stay.

By the time I finally cleared immigration, it hardly seemed worth the money – even at $14.00 – to pay a visit to the lounge. On the other hand, had I known the flight was going to be operating almost an hour late, I would have gladly handed over a small handful of colorful Lao Kip currency. Unfortunately no announcements were ever made. Our aircraft could not be seen from the central waiting room and there was no airline representative present at the gate podium, so I had no way of knowing when we were leaving.

Time passed slowly in the hard metal and plastic chairs. I watched my fellow passengers – a mix of locals and Europeans. The Europeans began to become more concerned as time wore on. I was more irritated than concerned. I mean, there’s nothing I can do about the delay but at least let us know what’s going on. After all, we’re not a bunch of cattle headed for slaughter. We’ve got lives to live and things to do. If the flight’s two hours late - fine. Just let me know so I can plan accordingly. In my case, that plan would’ve been to hit the lounge for a bit of food and drink, not to mention a more comfortable seat.

Finally, I decided to take action – in a roundabout way. With no Lao Airlines personnel present, I went to the lounge and told a member of the reception staff that I’d heard Lao’s flight had been delayed until 1000pm. As such, I was curious about the amenities offered in the lounge. Perhaps I’d pay the $14.00.

Delayed until 10:00pm? Whoa! That certainly raised some eyebrows. A phone call was placed – assumedly to Lao Airlines. About three minutes later two uniformed Lao Airlines personnel arrived – the same two who’d checked me in – and headed over to the gate 2 podium. Well alrighty then. What’s up? An announcement was made that the flight was delayed until 7:45pm. Boarding would begin about 7:20pm. Fine. Now at least I knew what was going on.

Did my actions precipitate the arrival of the gate agents? Who knows? Is this a bad thing? Am I now to be considered a pushy Westerner for not taking a go-along get along attitude like so many of the locals appeared to do? Pffft! To my way of thinking, it’s 2018. Laos is trying to promote tourism, and not from neighboring Thailand or Cambodia but rather from presumably rich western countries. Its airline is part of that effort. Better get with the plan then, fellas. Don’t treat us like mindless cargo. Most reasonable people are fine with the occasional delay. It happens. At the very least, just keep us reasonably informed though.

Once upon a time, a flight aboard the national airline of Laos provided real potential for more adventure than most passengers were willing to broker. Back in the 1960s you might find yourself aboard an ancient DC-3 or DC-4 while during the 1980s the airline operated aircraft from China and the Soviet Union such as the Xian Y-7 or the Antonov AN-24. In 2003, the company was re-branded Lao Airlines and, after operating a collection of 2nd and 3rd hand Boeing 737s, took delivery of the first of two new Airbus A320s in 2011. That’s right – New! The aircraft I flew upon tonight just happened to be the first of the new Airbuses. At only 7 years old, it was delivered new to Lao Airlines in 2011.

After years of flying in the relatively boring and unimaginative dark blue or grey aircraft interiors favored by airlines from North America and Europe, I was mildly surprised and more than a bit appreciative of the jungle green interior of Lao’s A320. The aircraft featured a two-class layout seating 16 in Business Class and 126 in the main cabin. Business Class seats were arranged in a proper 2-2 configuration rather than the chintzy 3-3 layout favored by most European airlines. The seats were wide and plush with about 40” seat pitch. Very nice indeed.

Upon checking in, I had asked about the cost of upgrading to Business Class. When told it would be an additional $210.00 USD for the 55 minute flight to Bangkok, I determined that I could get better value for my money elsewhere. So it was that I continued on past the bulkhead separating the cabins and took my seat in 5C.

The view from 5C

We had an all-male crew this evening. The boys did an excellent job of getting us all seated while the crew up front performed admirably in providing general forelock tipping to Business Class passengers along with complimentary pre-departure beverages. As I watched it all from the vantage point of my seat at 5C, I must say the reality of having to sit in Economy Class seemed much more stark after having flown across the Pacific to Asia in First Class on Cathay Pacific.

The service on tonight’s 55 minute flight to Bangkok consisted of a snack box featuring a bun containing a simple chicken patty. Also included were a cup of water and a packet of ketchup. Ketchup and chicken… Maybe in Asia that works, but not for me. Thankfully I’d brought along a few extra packets of Grey Poupon Mustard. Ah… much better!

Lao Airlines Snack Box

The contents…

The 55 minute flight went by quickly. No sooner had I wolfed down my sandwich than it seemed we’d begun our descent into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. With a population of over 8 million people, Bangkok’s city lights extend a long ways out from the airport. It seemed as if we were flying over suburban area for almost half the flight while setting up for our final into Suvarnabhumi.

Following a two-point landing, we taxied in and parked a good ways down the C concourse. This was not good news. It meant a long walk up to the main terminal and then beyond to immigration. Along the way I passed a sign indicating that immigration was just 450 yards distant. This after already trudged a couple hundred yards.

Sigh… Plod on…

Once I finally reached immigration, clearing it was a breeze. Emerging into the Arrivals Hall, I called my hotel and was informed that my ride would be arriving within 15 minutes. Perfect!

Following are a few pictures of my room at Summit Windmill Golf Resort and the view from my balcony. This is my second time staying here. What a wonderful place!

Summit Windmill Golf Resort Living Room

Summit Windmill Golf Resort Kitchen

Summit Windmill Golf Resort Bathroom

Summit Windmill Golf Resort Balcony

Summit Windmill Golf Resort Nighttime View from Balcony

Day Sixteen
Bangkok Airways Economy Class ~ A320-200 ~ Bangkok, TH to Chiang Mai, TH ~ 1225p – 145p

Chaing Mai sits 320 miles north of Bangkok and is well served by three local airlines – Nok Air and Thai Air Asia out of Don Maueng Airport and Bangkok Airways out of Suvarnabhumi. Fares ranged from $35.00 to $65.00 USD one way, so I was well positioned to affordably add to my collection of 195 airlines flown so far.

During my dozen or so transits through Bangkok over the past ten years, I couldn’t help but take notice of Bangkok Airways’ colorfully painted aircraft. These are not logo jets but rather unique artistic works that use airplanes as canvasses with colorful artwork representative of the exotic and cultural destinations the airline serves. The overall effect is both alluring and appealing.

A few examples from Bangkok Airways’ colorful fleet

Bangkok Airways bills itself as Asia’s boutique airline. Its fleet of Airbus A320s and ATR-72s offer comfortable seating and service that’s almost as good as that offered by legacy carrier Thai Airways. At $65.00 one way up to Chiang Mai, it was the most expensive option but considering the extra legroom, superior service and the convenience of a Suvarnabhumi departure, I felt the extra money was well spent.

Check-in was a breeze. I was especially thankful that there would be no charge to take my roll-a-bord onboard with me. The only downside to this flight was that it departed from the airport’s domestic departure area over on the A concourse. Although my Star Alliance and Priority Pass membership granted me access to about a dozen lounges around BKK, none of them were located in the domestic departures area.

That said, Bangkok Airways has its own “Boutique Lounge” on the A concourse. I knew this but assumed it must require membership or status to enter. Not so! All that is required to enter is that you be a passenger flying aboard Bangkok Airways that day. Well blow me down! How cool is that?!

As might be expected of a lounge with such a lenient and wide ranging admittance policy, it was pretty crowded. Food offerings were basic crunchy snacks and muffins. A few newspapers and magazines were also available. I did spot a few empty seats but the overall ambience was so crowded that I took a simple look around and then decided to head back to a food court that I’d noticed on the walk down the concourse.

It should be noted that on select routes Bangkok Airlines also offers a Business Class called Blue Ribbon Club that provides wider seats, nicer service and separate lounges. These lounges are different from the standard boutique lounges in that they offer passengers more private space with personal shower rooms, libraries and hot meals available. No Business Class was offered on my flight however.

I wasn’t expecting a meal on the one hour flight up to Chiang Mai, especially aboard an airline that charged only $65.00 for a one way ticket. As such, I stopped by a nice looking Thai food oriented kiosk and ordered a Pad Thai. Two stalls down, an American sounding guy was complaining loudly and even cursing about some aspect of his meal or service. This would have been rather shocking back home but it was all the more so here in Thailand where people rarely raise their voices. Thankfully he vented his anger rather quickly and stalked off into the concourse.

As usual, my flight was departing from the very last gate on the concourse - all the way down at A6. I arrived about 40 minutes before departure. The gate lounge was half full and I was pleased to see that unlike American airports, there was not a big crowd already clustered around the jetway entrance. I took a seat nearby and awaited the call to board.

Boarding proceeded in a surprisingly orderly fashion. It was a welcome change from the circus that so often accompanies the process in many other parts of the world, including the U.S. Entering the aircraft, I was mildly surprised and a tad disappointed to see row after row of beige leather seats. As one who flew often during the colorful seventies, I really miss the bright and cheerful fabrics that highlighted airline interiors back then. Given Bangkok Airways’ colorful exteriors, I was hoping for something a bit more vibrant. Alas.

Well if your only complaint about a flight is with the color and covering of the seat, you’re doing pretty well. In every other respect, this flight was just perfect. I shared my row with a young lady from Canada, leaving the middle seat open. Flight time was just over an hour during which time we were served a surprisingly good chicken curry lunch.

Chicken Curry at 34000’

Following a smooth landing at Chiang Mai’s International Airport, I made my way down to the arrivals level to search out transport into town. I’d read that there was a communal van service for 200 Baht (about $7.00 USD) but was unable to find any evidence of such. I was however surprised at the number of coffee shops/kiosks ringing the check-in and arrivals area. I counted seven of them – more than enough to make any Seattleite feel right at home. As for my ride into town, the first taxi kiosk I checked quoted me 400 Baht. The next one asked for just 250. Sold!

Day Nineteen
Thailand Railways First Class ~ Chiang Mai, TH to Bangkok, TH ~ 600p – 650a

Located off a shady tree lined street, Chiang Mai’s railroad station is a good-looking mid-sized building featuring an attractive Thai style roof. A couple of appealing open air restaurants were located just outside the station and, with the quality of food aboard Thai trains having previously been cast into doubt, I decided to purchase a plate of tasty Pad Hed (stir-fried mushrooms, onions, peppers, chicken and rice) to eat later onboard the train.

Chiang Mai Railroad Station

Boarding was announced about thirty minutes prior to departure time. Americans (by accent) and Caucasians (by appearance) were everywhere. Chiang Mai is a popular stop on the Thai tourism circuit, and looking around at my fellow passengers, I could just as easily have been at an LA suburban station.

My First Class Sleeper was located directly behind the large diesel locomotive. Because the train had backed into the station, that meant I had to limp on down past a dozen or so cars before finally reaching my sleeper. The staff at the station, seeing my gait, quickly offered a wheelchair down to my car. No thanks – not my style. They then insisted on taking my roll-a-bord and escorting me down to my car. Well, okay then, if you must. Thank you.

Thailand Railways’ new First Class passenger carriages are painted a silvery grey offset by twin orange and fuchsia striping. They added a pleasant accent to the otherwise grey and cloudy day. As we made our way down the length of the train, I also took note of the attractive grassy islands on the platform between tracks. They added a nice natural touch to an area that at most stations is little more than utilitarian concrete.

Making my way down to Car 1 – the First Class Sleeper

Grassy islands accent the Chiang Mai platform

Honestly, the railroad staff could not have been more helpful or gracious as they offered me assistance up the stairs into the train (none needed, thanks) and delivered my bag to my room. This was the exact same room type that I had on my recent ride from Bangkok to Nong Khai, so I won’t elaborate further on its amenities. I will however take a moment to show you some of the second class sleeping accommodations available on this train since I took a few minutes to check them out. They were located just one car back and appeared to be very popular with the backpacker set.

The Second Class Sleeper

Individual seating area in the 2nd Class Sleeper

Individual seating area in the 2nd Class Sleeper

Returning to my car, I was soon visited by a representative from the dining car who asked if I’d like to pre-order a meal that could be delivered to my room. Whoa, now! This level of service certainly wasn’t offered on the train to Nong Khai. Perhaps the Chiang Mai train warrants better service. Had I not already ordered a takeaway dinner from the restaurant outside the station, I would have surely rolled the dice and taken my chances. It’s been my experience that good service is also accompanied by good food and vice versa. Next time, perhaps…

Departure was right on time. Thankfully my car seemed well enough insulated that I heard very little noise from the locomotive up front. As we rolled through the leafy suburbs of Chiang Mai, I dined on a pretty good batch of Pad Hed (My favorite remains the version made at Fairbanks’ Bahn Thai Restaurant) washed down with a can of deliciously chilled Singha lager.

I slept well in my nicely air-conditioned compartment – so well that it took some vigorous knocking on my door by the car attendant to alert me to our impending arrival in Bangkok. The time was 6:20am. Unfortunately we were right on time.

At the station I met my pre-arranged ride to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. A flight aboard my 197th airline awaited…

Day Twenty
Vietnam Airlines Economy Class ~ A321-200 ~ Bangkok, TH to Ho Chi Minh City, VN 1120a – 130p

My good duty of the day consisted of helping a middle aged American couple find their check-in area. It all seemed pretty clear to me – a big board indicated by letter where each airline’s check-in area was located, and if you knew your alphabet then you simply followed the letters to the correct spot. I get the sense that some people just convince themselves that travel is going to be difficult and so arrive at the airport expecting to be befuddled. We FlyerTalkers – experienced travelers that we are – know the drill. Calm down. Take in and process the information available to you and work it out. The alternative of course is to do nothing. Sooner or later a guy like me will show up to lend a hand.

Check-in and Immigration was a breeze. Unfortunately, the walk to the E-Concourse was not. Suvarnabhumi is a huge airport. Its terminal is the fourth largest single-building (563,000 square meters or 6,060,000 square feet) in the world. The check-in counters I used were located on the opposite side of the airport from the gate assigned to this flight. And of course that gate was the very last one down the E concourse. It was about a half mile walk along a broad brightly lit corridor lined with colorful upscale shops. Most of those shops looked to be doing brisk business, too. I’ve never understood the compulsion to go shopping in an airport where more often than not the prices are artificially high and your purchase leaves you with just one more thing you’ll have to lug around the airport and onboard your flight. But that’s me. It would appear that in Bangkok at least, views like mine may very well be in the minority.

Although I was flying Economy Class on the short flight over to Ho Chi Minh City, my Priority Pass membership provided me a wide choice of lounges to visit at Suvarnabhumi. Thankfully, three of those lounges (Miracle Lounge, KLM/Air France and Oman Air) were located at the junction of the E and F concourses. I decided to start with the Miracle Lounge, previously known as the Louis’ Tavern Lounge.

There are nine Miracle Lounges scattered about the airport and they are all pleasant and well stocked facilities with comfortable seating and a nice variety of foods and liquor on offer. The F Concourse lounge was no different:

Miracle Lounge self-service bar and seating

Miracle Lounge food and drink area

A nice selection of hot tidbits

I fixed myself a cup of coffee and retired to an open table to put in a bit of work on this trip report. The Wi-Fi signal was strong and I ended up getting distracted and downloading a couple of recent String Cheese Incident shows instead.

With a little more than an hour to go before boarding of my flight to SGN, I decided to change locales and pay a quick visit to the Oman Air Lounge. Located at the head of the E concourse, it sported an attractive glass walled entrance and a friendly receptionist. Inside, it was a very small facility indeed. Still, it offered all the amenities of many larger lounges including a nice looking shower room – one each for men and women. I poured myself a glass of Jack Daniels and put together a tasty plate of snacks from the food service area.

Oman Air Lounge seating

Oman Air Lounge self-service bar

A nice selection of nuts and hot tidbits

After a half hour, I made my way down the length of the concourse to my gate. These concourses at Suvarnabhumi are certainly some of the most modern and well-designed I have ever seen. High, wide and rounded, they offer spacious walkways and people movers running the length of the concourse. Large windows allow natural light to flood in while plants, trees and Thai artwork complete the stunning promenade.

Walking down BKK’s E Concourse

Down at the gate, my 8 year old Airbus A321 was looking very nice in Vietnam Airlines’ attractive green and gold livery. This aircraft represents the backbone of VN’s regional fleet with 57 of them currently in operation. As I walked down the jet way and entered the aircraft, I was immediately impressed by the spacious 16 seat Business Class cabin. Seating was of course a proper 2-2 configuration with about 45” pitch between seats. Prior to the flight I’d gotten an email with an offer to upgrade into Business for about $80.00 more but as it was only a one hour flight, I decided to pass.

Continuing past the divider into the Economy Class cabin, I was equally impressed with my attractive cloth upholstered seat with its generous 32” pitch. I mouthed a silent prayer that I’d opted to pay a bit more to fly VN as opposed to the less expensive VietJet which crams an additional 26 seats into its A321s.

Shortly after leveling off, the flight attendants rolled a cart down the aisle distributing trays of cold snacks. Each tray consisted of a couple slices of cold luncheon meats, some sliced vegetables, a small splot of potato salad, a roll and a small fruit plate. I cut the roll in half and made a sandwich, accented with a sachet of Grey Poupon mustard which I supplied from my baggie of miscellaneous condiments.

Lunchtime on Vietnam Airlines

It looked to be a hot hazy day as we descended through puffy white clouds and lined up for the final over the broad expanse of Ho Chi Minh City’s urban sprawl. I wonder how different the view was for American troops 50 years ago flying into what was then Saigon aboard MAC chartered 707s from airlines like Braniff and Continental?

We parked remotely next to another A321 and then bussed into the terminal. Normally I’m not a big fan of remote parking, but in this case that bus ride saved us from what looked to be a pretty long walk had we parked at what looked to be the last available gate on the concourse.

My Visa On Arrival process went fairly smoothly. In all, I spent only about an hour from the time I disembarked the aircraft to the time I stepped into the taxi that delivered me to my accommodation for the night, the rather oddly named New Space Hotel. I found this property at Hotel.com and booked a Deluxe Double Room for just $43.00 USD all in.

Overall I thought the property looked a little better in the hotel.com pictures than the reality of my room. In a general sense it was nice enough but there were only two electrical outlets in the room – both singles – one of which served the refrigerator. The other served my bedside lamp. There were no outlets in the bathroom. Additionally the hotel restaurant was only open for breakfast. None of the eateries on the nearby streets looked like they’d pass an American style restaurant inspection, so I opted for a big bowl of dried chicken and vegetable soup that came as part of the for-purchase items available with the room. Two cans of Heineken washed it all down for a nominal fee.

I slept well on the big queen sized bed. My wake-up call at 5:15am allowed time for a quick shower before making my way down to the lobby where the front desk had arranged for a 6:00am taxi back to the airport.
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:50 pm
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Day Twenty-One
Japan Airlines Business Class ~ 787-8 ~ Ho Chi Minh City, VN to Tokyo, JP ~ 810a – 400p
Japan Airlines First Class ~ 777-300 ~ Tokyo, JP to New York JFK ~ 630p – 625p

Tan Son Nhat International Airport is Vietnam’s leading international gateway. It is located inside the crowded urban core of Ho Chi Minh City and, like the city, it is fairly congested. That’s not to say it is poorly run, however. Considering how well thought out and organized most big-city Asian airports are, SGN was just slower. On a positive note, plans are well under way to build a new substantially larger airport in the Long Thanh District, located about 25 miles out of the city. That airport is scheduled to open in 2025.

For today however, I had to endure long lines at both security and immigration though thankfully once I reached each checkpoint the process went relatively quickly and smoothly.

My Business Class ticket on Japan Airlines provided me access to either the Apricot Lounge or the Rose Lounge. Additionally, my Priority Pass membership allowed me access to the Orchid Lounge. As I made my way down the concourse, the Orchid lounge was the first one I came to and since I really wanted a cup of coffee – as in right now! – I stopped in there first.

This was a nice lounge – not particularly large but bright and inviting with lots of natural light courtesy of a wall of almost floor to ceiling windows looking out over the tarmac. Opposite the windows was a long buffet counter offering a nice selection of both hot and cold items. I didn’t see anything particularly enticing however and so limited my choice to that cup of coffee I’d so desired.

The Orchid Lounge Buffet

Orchid Lounge ambience

Taking a seat by the window, I briefly flipped through a copy of the International New York Times before collecting my gear and heading down the concourse to the Rose Lounge which was conveniently located right next door to my departure gate.

This was a larger facility with a much nicer spread of food. Indeed, I recognized the layout from my last trip through Ho Chi Minh City four years ago. I helped myself to a small plate of nicely flavored noodles, then found a table and continued with my perusal of the New York Times. Dang! Those noodles are good! Maybe just a wee bit more…

Rose Lounge overview

It was a little after 7:30am when I made my way next door to the gate serving my Tokyo bound flight. This required taking an elevator upstairs, walking 50 yards down the concourse and then taking another elevator downstairs to the gate lounge. Waiting at the gate while gleaming nicely in the morning sun was JA827J, a six and a half year old 787-8 that was the 38th aircraft off the assembly line way back in 2012. This was my ninth flight aboard Boeing’s newest jetliner with all but one of those flights having come aboard eight other airlines. This was a repeat visit with my first flight aboard JAL’s 787 having come last year between Taipei and Tokyo.

There was nobody in the Business Class lane at the podium, so I strolled on down the jetway and into the aircraft without impediment. Two pretty flight attendants greeted me at the door with shy smiles and essentially pointed to my seat right next door at 1A.

JAL’s 787-8 regional Business Class cabins sport an attractive open layout with 42 shell style angle-flat seats configured 2-2-2. There are two Business Class cabins with the smaller forward cabin offering three rows of seats. The seats are upholstered in attractive maroon fabric with a patterned headrest cover providing distinctive accent. At each seat was a pillow, blanket and a pair of slippers. I stowed my daypack, kicked off my shoes and settled in for the flight.

Seatmate arrived shortly thereafter. He was a middle-aged Japanese man who settled in quickly, ignored me and quickly delved into his newspaper. Throughout the flight he uttered nary a word except a brief indication to the flight attendant as to his menu preference. I was reminded of that scene from the movie “Fargo” with the two guys driving from Brainerd to Minneapolis – four hours of complete silence. Well two can play that game, buddy.

Many seatmates aren’t particularly social back home in the U.S. either, where we share the same language and culture. Truth be known, I’m not a particularly chatty guy myself. I mean – it’s not that I can’t be but rather that I’ve always assumed many people don’t particularly care to interact with complete strangers. And if so, I’m fine with that. Between my book of the week, a newspaper or two, my laptop and the airline’s IFE I’ve got plenty to entertain me throughout the flight. In many cases, I actually prefer the silent treatment because I’ve got stuff I’m looking forward to reading or doing during the flight anyway.

Surprisingly, no PDBs were offered – even coffee. A menu was presented however and so I eagerly perused the offerings for this morning’s 2,720 mile five hour and seventeen minute flight up to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.



Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve N.V.

White Wine
Viré Clessé 2016
Symphonie Sauvignon Blanc Trocken 2016
CLINE Viognier North Coast 2016

Red Wine
Silver Label 2015 (Monastrell)
Novas Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley
Castle Rock Pinot Noir 2012

It was a little early for alcohol – at least for me - and so I continued on to the meal offerings. Hmm… that’s interesting. Despite our early morning departure, the meal being offered on today’s flight was lunch. No complaints here as lunch is usually a bit more elaborate offering than breakfast. Let’s see what’s on offer:



Bento Box

Deep fried white fish marinated in Vinegar Sauce
Egg Tofu
Burdock dressed with sesame sauce
Poached spinach eel and tofu cake
Vegetable egg cake
Simmered duck
Beef roll with Welsh onion
Smoked salmon and cream cheese roll
Shrimp ball
Simmered vegetables


Japanese Style Sliced Beef

Simmered mushroom and vegetables
Steamed rice


Marble Cheesecake
Green Tea


Hors d’oeuvre

Dou of salmon mousse
Caprese Salad
Consommé Jelly with Salmon Roe


Beef Steak

Smoked soy wasabi sauce, hashed browns, sautéed spinach

Grilled White Fish
Asparagus Carbonara Sauce, ratatouille, mashed potatoes

Bread Basket
Assorted gourmet breads

Marble Cheesecake
Coffee * Tea


JAL Original Snack Noodle
Champon de Sky
Udon de Sky
Soba de Sky

* * * _  _ * * *

Hmm… very nice. Maybe I’ll try the Bento Box for once. I’ve had more than a few opportunities over the years and have always passed on it, usually due to the inclusion of stuff like jellyfish or some other stewed sea creature. Today’s offerings – with the possible exception of the spinach eel – all seem imminently palatable. Then again, that Western menu looks pretty good as well. In any event, I had plenty of time to think about it.

Shortly thereafter the doors were closed and the flight attendants summarily dispensed with the safety demonstration. As we pushed back, I took in the hum of our giant GEnx engines as they slowly spooled to life. This is an exceptionally quiet engine and the reasons behind that are really quite fascinating.

The “nx” after GE stands for “Next Generation”. These new engines are almost 50 percent quieter than the GE CF-6 or Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines that powered early generation wide bodies. The two factors that contribute most to a quieter operation are the fans and the triangular chevrons at the rear of the engine nacelles.

The fans of the GE Aviation GEnx - which produce 95 per cent of the engine's total thrust – are made from stronger and lighter materials which also help reduce engine noise. There are only 18 blades compared with the 35 found in the CF-6 predecessor that powered aircraft such as the DC-10 and 747. The reduction in blade count is possible because of the advanced three-dimensional aerodynamics of each GEnx fan blade, designed using computer-aided fluid dynamics modeling of the airflow through each of the engine's many fan, compressor and turbine stages.

The chevrons are those things that look like sharks’ teeth at the rear of the engine nacelles. Their purpose is to more efficiently mix bypass air exiting the engine with the outside air. This prevents the two air masses from shearing against each other which causes much of the noise associated with jet engines.

Shortly after takeoff, I reclined my seat slightly and adjusted my in-seat IFE screen to the flight map. Hmm… I see we’ll be heading right over the Philippines. One of these days I’m going to have to pay that 7,741 island archipelago a visit.

Flight Map SGN-NRT

Meanwhile, I was impressed with how quiet the forward cabin of the 787 is. Truth be told, I’ve only once flown Economy Class once on the -87 and I don’t recall whether it was noticeably noisier in back or not. Perhaps that’s because I was on an American Airlines bird and my senses were dulled by the flat grey interior throughout the plane.

JAL’s Shell Flat Neo seats are upholstered in an attractive charcoal grey fabric accented by a colorfully patterned headrest cover. They are exceptionally comfortable compared to many Business Class seats which – in an effort to provide a firm sleeping surface – are better suited for sleeping on than sitting on. The 787’s large windows provide a marvelous view on the world outside and as we leveled off I had the feeling that this would be a very nice flight indeed, ensconced as I was in a comfortable seat high over the Pacific on a gorgeous sunny day.

Cruising high over the Pacific

It was 8:40am when our flight attendant arrived to take beverage and luncheon orders. This is without doubt the earliest I have ever been served lunch either in the air or on the ground. As unusual as it was, I decided to roll with the atypical theme and ordered the Japanese meal - poached spinach eel and all. As for the accompanying beverage, I opted to stay typical and requested coffee to start followed by a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc to be served with my meal.

I have always loved finger foods, so you’d think that the Bento Box with its artful variety of little dishes would be right up my alley. In many ways it was. The presentation was as attractive as it was appetizing with the black lacquered box containing an appealing array of nicely arranged foodstuffs, many of which I was actually able to recognize.

Japan Airlines’ Bento Box
Deep fried white fish marinated in Vinegar Sauce
Egg Tofu
Burdock dressed with sesame sauce
Poached spinach eel and tofu cake
Vegetable egg cake
Simmered duck
Beef roll with Welsh onion
Smoked salmon and cream cheese roll
Shrimp ball
Simmered vegetables

Best of all, most of the items tasted pretty darned good. But hey – take a look at that box – can you recognize which one is the Poached spinach eel and tofu cake? I couldn’t. I mean – there were three different cake type items. Was the eel alongside the tofu cake or mixed in with it? I tried ‘em all but I’ve gotta be honest with you – none of the “cakes” were all that appealing to me. Reckon I’ll stick to Black Forest Cake and the like from now on. The rest of the items were fairly tasty though.

The main dish of Japanese Style Sliced Beef with simmered mushroom and vegetables was very attractively presented on colorful porcelain dishes. The beef was fairly tender and reasonably flavorful and yet I’ve got to admit to more than a bit of envy when looking across at seatmate’s western meal main course of Beef Steak with Smoked Soy Wasabi Sauce accompanied by hashed browns and sautéed spinach. The whole ensemble just looked tastier to me. Next time… A glass of Novas Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile’s Maipo Valley accompanied this dish to positive effect.

Japanese Style Sliced Beef

Dessert was a small serving of Marble Cheesecake. It was presented atop a tasty raspberry coulis that in terms of presentation might have benefitted more from a plate rather than a bowl but hey – it tasted very nice regardless. It was a deliciously savory ending to a pleasant if somewhat early lunch.

Marble Cheesecake

Throughout this flight the service was excellent. The flight attendant working our side of the cabin was gracious and attentive in an anticipatory way. She seemed to sense when we needed something without hovering or fawning. I hope to see her working First Class on a future Japan Airlines flight. I’ve no doubt she’ll be an excellent addition to JAL’s First Class team.

As for the rest of the flight, I took my customary couple of strolls to the back of the airplane. It’s good to get up and walk around. More than good, it’s probably important – especially as we get older and circulation might not be as vigorous as it once was.

It was a hazy afternoon as we descended along the east coast of Honshu Island. The view was pretty and I took a couple of pictures as we approached the coast. Upon review however, I was dissatisfied with the clarity of the shots and later deleted them. Why keep them unless I’m going to fully enjoy them? More to the point – just because the picture was taken doesn’t mean it has to be included in the report – especially if it’s not of appropriate quality. Pass it on…

We parked amidst a group of three other 787s. I thanked the crew for a nice flight, nodded to my seatmate who studiously ignored me and then made my way up the jetway and into the terminal.

JAL’s Terminal 2 at Narita – while nowhere near as modern or architecturally dazzling as many other modern Asian airport terminals – is still a pleasant and well laid out facility with excellent signage which allowed me to easily navigate my way across the terminal and through a security checkpoint to JAL’s First Class Lounge. It was most convenient that my New York bound flight was parked next door at the first gate down from the lounge.
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Seat 2A is offline  
Old Oct 7, 18, 9:55 pm
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Japan Airlines First Class ~ 777-300 ~ Tokyo, JP to New York JFK ~ 630p – 625p

Compared to some First Class Lounge portals I’ve seen – especially those at the host airline’s home airport – the entrance to JAL’s First Class Lounge is relatively subdued. Located in an unremarkable white tiled alcove off the main concourse, it consists of a set of frosted sliding doors recessed into a wood paneled wall. Gold letters underneath JAL’s iconic logo announce the lounge while a large standing vase of flowers next to the door provide accent.

JAL First Class Lounge

The sliding doors opened with a muted hiss revealing an attractive reception desk staffed with three nicely attired receptionists patiently awaiting my arrival. After establishing my credentials, I made arrangements to sign up for a shower and have my luggage stored before proceeding on into the lounge. I was told there would be about a twenty minute wait for a shower and was handed a portable buzzer that would notify me when my shower was available.

I must say that by my tastes at least, JAL’s First Class Lounge is a very stylishly done facility. I was immediately taken with the subdued lighting contrasting with the natural daylight from the large windows along the dark wooden walls. The lounge was divided into a number of different seating zones which leant a sense of intimacy to these areas as opposed to the convention hall like atmosphere of a large room filled with chairs and tables. I also appreciated the smaller touches such as private booths for those who wanted to talk on their cell phones. A separate room was also available for cigarette smokers.

JAL First Class Lounge Seating Area

JAL First Class Lounge Seating Area

JAL First Class Lounge – Business Center

A hot and cold buffet with dining area and a self-service beverage bar were located on the far side of the lounge. There was also a sushi bar – a big attraction for most but not for me. I prefer my fish cooked. I found an empty table in the Business Center and then sauntered over to the food area to have a look at the offerings. Hmm… Very nice… There were hot dishes featuring both Japanese and western fare as well as a nice variety of finger foods, a salad bar and even a dessert bar. I was suitably impressed.

JAL First Class Lounge Finger Foods

JAL First Class Lounge Salad Bar

JAL First Class Lounge – Sweet Trays

JAL First Class Lounge – The Bar Selections
Hey – that’s me in the reflection!

This ought to tide me over until flight time…

The 777-300 that would soon be flying me to New York was parked just outside the windows alongside the buffet area. I fired off a quick photo.

My steed awaits

About forty minutes had passed and I’d still heard nothing from my shower buzzer, so I wandered back to the reception desk to see how far along we were in the process. “Oh, Mr. Seat 2A! We buzzed you a few minutes ago!” I never heard anything and had the buzzer within three feet of me the whole time. Thankfully a shower was still available and I was promptly escorted down a dark hallway to a waiting suite.

As shower suites go, I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse. Space was the main concern. The shower itself was fine but the confines were a bit tight for both me and my roll-a-bord. Perhaps the trick here is to remove a change of clothing first before entering the shower suite. In any event, I emerged freshly attired and ready to grace the First Class cabin with a newly pressed pair of grey Dockers and a pale yellow cotton oxford shirt offset by a navy blue blazer. Sorry gang – no track suits or shorts and t-shirts for me. Not my style.

I don’t recall that any boarding announcements were made in the lounge. Regardless, I collected my gear and headed down to the gate about forty minutes prior to departure. Normally I’m not a guy who feels a need to get on the plane as soon as possible. As a top tier flyer in my airline’s mileage program I’m usually sat in First Class and don’t much worry about space for my carry-on bag. Similarly, pre-flight cocktails are of little importance to me. When flying international First Class on a quality airline however, the party starts the moment you arrive on board the aircraft, so I like to join the festivities early on.

When I arrived at the gate boarding was already underway for what appeared to be a fairly full flight. Thankfully, the Business/First lane had only a couple of customers and I was able to proceed unimpeded into the jetway. A fork midway down provided a dedicated First Class entrance.

Two good looking flight attendants were stationed at door 1L. Smiles and a warm welcome followed as my boarding pass was inspected and I was then escorted to my suite at 2A. The First Class cabins on JAL’s 777-300ERs are outfitted with eight First Class suites consisting of comfortable brown leather armchairs encased in molded white plastic pods. While not as private as the closed door suites found on airlines such as Emirates, JAL’s suites offer plenty of personal space and per my tastes at least provide more than enough privacy. I particularly enjoyed the plush comfort of the big leather arm chairs which measure 23” between armrests and come with all the usual seat controls including adjustable lumbar support, massage, recline and a variety of pre-set reclined positions.

Japan Airlines First Class Suite

Already at my seat were an amenity kit and a set of Bose Noise Cancelling headphones. A flight attendant approached and offered to help me with hanging my jacket and storing my carry-on bags. I took care of lifting my 22” roll-a-bord into the overhead compartment while she went off to hang my jacket and fetch some pajamas. A large open space under the bench/ottoman facing my seat provided ample room for my shoes and daypack. Soon, my flight attendant – whose name was Fumiko – returned with a Shishedo skin care kit and the pajamas which I tossed in the overhead compartment with my roll-a-bord. I haven’t worn pajamas since I was seven or eight years old and – JAL’s highly regarded First Class PJs notwithstanding, I’m not about to start now. My neighbor seems to like them though, so I’m always happy to save him a pair from wherever I travel. He’s got a big Samurai sword he likes to practice with on occasion, so maybe he’ll feel more at home doing so while wearing those pajamas.
Champagne was offered – or anything else I’d like to drink in advance of departure – so I requested a glass of the bubbly. I’ve mentioned many times before in these reports that I’m not a big fan of Champagne so I won’t belabor the point except to say that today’s offering was the Pol Roger Churchill – a type that’s been roundly lauded by many here on FT including fellow trip report luminary Moomba. To be honest, I was looking forward to trying out the even more highly regarded Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil 2006 for which JAL’s First Class is justifiably famous. This wine is ridiculously expensive and so far as I know, JAL is the only airline that offers it. Perhaps I should say “was” however, since when I asked Fumiko about the Salon’s absence she replied only that it wasn’t stocked today. The sting of the missing Salon was assuaged considerably by the addition of a nicely plated amuse bouche to the pre-flight Champagne service.

We’re serving the Churchill today…

Champagne and Amuse Bouche

Champagne and Amuse Bouche

Cheers from Suite 2A

Suite side amenities

Settling in to my comfy chair, I watched as fellow passengers arrived. Ultimately seven out of the eight First Class suites would be occupied for this flight. I must say I like the look and feel of this suite. In an era when so many airlines – especially the U.S. airlines – upholster their cabins in various shades of depressing grey or drab dark blue, it was nice to sit in a nicely padded brown leather armchair atop deep reddish brown carpet surrounded by warm brown wood paneling. Although I vastly prefer a single suite as opposed to the 2-2-2 arrangement of years past, it’s not particularly important to me to have the complete privacy afforded by sliding door enclosed suites. If anything, I rather prefer a bit of openness around me. I think it contributes to a greater sense of space and as a guy who was born and raised out in the wide open spaces of the 1960s American West, I appreciate that open space more than most. As an example of what I think is one of the most attractive and spacious First Class cabins, check out this view of Qatar’s A380 First Class cabin.

Qatar Airways A380 First Class cabin

Turning my attention to the amenity kit, I removed the plastic wrap to reveal a colorful cloth zippered bag. Inside was a collection of the usual amenity kit stuff - an eye mask, tissues, a brush-comb combo, a dental hygiene kit, earplugs, lip balm, scented facial mist and hand and body cream. Nice. Moving on to the gender specific Shiseido skincare box, I found cleansing foam, hydrating lotion and Total Revitalizer face cream.
I think it’s great that the airlines provide these kits to their premium clientele, but I personally have little use for them. I always travel with a day pack in which I carry my laptop, a book and magazine or two, my camera and an mp3 player with a set of excellent Koss Porta-Pro headphones. In a couple of side pockets I have room for all sorts of other little necessities such as a sewing kit, eyeglass repair kit, mini-First Aid kit with bandaids, aspirin and ibuprofen, tissues, toothbrush, toothpaste and floss, a hair brush, an Emirates First Class eye shade and a condiment bag filled with packets of Grey Poupon, Tabasco Sauce, Cholula hot sauce, hot mustards and extra salt and pepper.

As for the usual airline amenity kit items, I either already carry them with me as a matter of course or I don’t need them. I live in a dry cabin in the woods of Alaska. I have not had indoor plumbing since 1994. Prior to typing these paragraphs I was outside shooting red tree squirrels that are insistent in their efforts to chew their way into my cabin and establish a winter nest. I drive a 17 year old truck and am not averse to sleeping in airports when the situation calls for it. So – as you might imagine a guy like me has no more use for things like lip balm, scented facial mist, hydrating lotion or revitalizing face cream than Shakespeare would have for a submarine. But for those who do use these items, I suspect they’d be quite pleased with JAL’s offerings.

One of the things I really like about JAL’s First Class suites is the seat side storage areas. Along the cabin wall were two cabinets – one contained an interactive IFE handset and mirror with enough storage space leftover to store my glasses. At my elbow was another cabinet, this one with more than enough room to stash my laptop, camera and a book or two.

As I sat there getting familiar with my new surroundings, I couldn’t help but acknowledge how fortunate I am to be enjoying such luxurious surroundings while aboard flying a third of the way around the planet. About 98% of the people I know have never experienced an international standard of First Class air travel and there’s a very strong likelihood that most of them never will. Whereas I’m sitting here sipping fine Champagne and testing the electronic leg rest of my leather bound recliner, just 100 feet behind me Economy Class passengers could very well be trying to make a bit more room for their legs under the seat in front of them while hoping the flight attendant might be able to bring them a glass of water prior to pushback. This grim scenario is the reality for most of the world’s travelers. I’ve been there many times myself, though fortunately most of my Economy Class experiences were back in the 1970s and 80s when airlines still provided well-padded and spacious Economy Class seating along with meals that were often more varied and filling than what passes for Business Class fare on many airlines today.

While I pondered my lot in life, a small tray bearing a hot towel was delivered and refills on Champagne were offered. Just prior to departure, one of the attendants stopped by to offer me a voucher good for complimentary inflight Wi-Fi. The purser also stopped by to introduce herself with all the usual welcoming pleasantries. In all, it was a fairly typical start to a First Class flight on one of the world’s better airlines.

This is my second flight in First Class aboard JAL. One of the more endearing qualities to a JAL departure is the sendoff from the ground staff. After our massive GE-90-115 engines had spooled up and begun to power us away from the gate area, the ground staff lined up and waved goodbye to us. The only other times I’ve had this happen was aboard my last JAL flight and aboard a United A320 as we taxied away from the gate in Anchorage back in 1997. That time was more personal though, it being the occasion of my one thousandth flight and one millionth mile flown aboard United Airlines. Both of those flights occurred within two days of each other. United’s Anchorage sales staff put on an award presentation for me at the gate, complete with cake and coffee for everyone. It was a special moment.


It’s so nice to be on a flight that’s long enough to fully appreciate the elaborate meal service and still have enough time left over to take advantage of the inflight entertainment offerings before catching a decent flight’s sleep atop a quality full length bed. Many flights – especially the early evening departures from the U.S. East Coast to Europe – are much too short. Even the 9 hour flights from the U.S. West Coast to Europe don’t offer enough time. A leisurely First Class dinner service usually takes up the first two hours of the flight. A movie is almost two more. Then you’re left with less than five hours to get some sleep – even less if you want to take advantage of the pre-arrival breakfast service. In order to fully appreciate all aspects of a proper long distance First Class flight, ideally – by my standards at least – it should last at least 12-13 hours.

Our 6:30pm departure and twelve hour flight time over to New York combined to create an almost perfect inflight scenario by my standards. First, I’ll start with cocktails and savories followed by a leisurely feast from JAL’s impressive BEDD menu offerings. Afterwards I might watch a movie or put in some time on my laptop. There will still be more than enough time to enjoy a quality sleep atop JAL’s 33” wide mattress topped bed. This is a proper bed, too – not one of those chintzy cheap seats where the far end narrows down where your feet are squished into a narrow, pointy area. The latter is an ongoing issue for me with most of the new Business Class suites and all the more reason why when it comes to truly long distance flights, you’ll usually find me in the First Class cabin.

Now many would argue that a Business Class seat is perfectly acceptable for long distance travel. Without a doubt, the comfort and amenities offered in Business Class are far superior to those found in Economy Class. Indeed, some airlines have enhanced their Business classes to such an extent that the distinction between travelling in Business Class and First Class has become increasingly blurred. Consider, too, that most people focus on the destination rather than the transportation. Even when traveling on award mileage, their practical approach to travel tells them that the Business Class seat and service is more than acceptable and that the additional space and amenities of First Class are not worth spending the extra money or miles for.

The main difference between me and most other people is that I love to fly. And, just as those who truly love to drive won’t settle for anything less than a high performance automobile, I won’t settle for anything less than a First Class Suite when it comes to long distance international travel. At least, not when I have the award miles to afford it.

* * * _  _ * * *

Shortly after leveling off, Fumiko stopped by to present an attractive leather bound folder embossed with a stylized “F” denoting its First Class pedigree. Inside were customs and immigration forms, a duty free booklet and copies of the First Class Menu and Wine List.

JAL’s First Class Folder

JAL’s First Class Folder Contents

JAL’s First Class Wine List

So then – let’s have a drink! Here’s a transcript of the drink menu. Choose whatever you like. I’m buying!



Louis Roederer Cristal 2009
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2006

White Wine
Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru “Morgeot” 2015, Bourgogne, France
Sandalford Estate Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2016, Australia
Jermann Pinot Grigio 2016, Italy
Coco Farm & Winery Kaze no Etude 2016, Japan

Red Wine
Ch teau Branaire Ducru 2014, Bordeaux, France
Pommard Clos des Ursulines Monopole Domaine du Pavillion 2013, Bourgogne, France
Ch.Igai Takaha “SONO” Pinot Noir 2015, California, USA
KUSUDA Martinborough Syrah 2014, New Zealand

Premium Japanese Sake

Premium Japanese Shochu
Gokujo Mori Izo

Port Wine
Graham’s Tawny Port 30 Years


Aperitif – Cocktail

Tio Pepe Dry Sherry
Martini Extra Dry Vermouth
Lejay Crème de Cassis
Plum Wine
Kir Royale
Bloody Mary

Chivas Regal Royal Salute 21 Years
Suntory Hibiki 17 Years Old
L&G Woodford Reserve

No. 3 London Dry Gin
Absolut Vodka

Rémy Martin V.S.O.P.
Bailey’s Irish Cream

When it comes to cocktail hour, I prefer a good bourbon. A close second would include select high end blended Scotch whiskeys. Now, it’s not that I don’t appreciate its inclusion amongst tonight’s offerings but I can affordably have Woodford Reserve any old time at home. 21 year old Royal Salute is quite another matter, however. Retailing at a little over $200.00 per bottle at the one Fairbanks liquor store that carries it, the Royal Salute is a bit out of my price range for everyday drinking pleasure. About the highest I will pay is $85.00 for a bottle of Bookers. That said, I’ve had the good fortune to have enjoyed the Royal Salute previously while flying First Class, most recently on last year’s flight with JAL between Tokyo and Chicago. It’s a very high quality blend, similar to Johnnie Walker Blue but perhaps even a tad fuller flavored. Indeed, it may very well be the smoothest whisky that I have ever consumed. I’ll have a glass of that please.

Our route of flight

Cheers from 37000 feet over the Pacific

By the way, I really like how JAL has arranged the main table in the First Class suites. Rather than wrestle it up out of the sidewall, it’s instead stowed under the entertainment monitor. When needed, you merely slide it toward you.

I was just finishing off that first delicious glass of Royal Salute when Fumiko returned to inquire about a refill while also checking on my dinner options. I’d had plenty of time to review the menu and was a bit disappointed to see that the Western meal offerings were almost identical to those offered in the menu I had on last year’s flight between Tokyo and Chicago. By comparison, the Japanese Menu was completely different. Here – see for yourself:

Tokyo to New York


Seasonal Five Colorful Delicacies

Steamed Savory Egg Custard with Truffle accompanied by Caviar
Two-color Asparagus & Broad Bean with KOHAKU Original XO Sauce
Hair Crab Meat with Ginger Vinegar
Simmered Sakura Shrimp, Bracken, Bamboo Shoots, Shiitake Mushroom and Burdock
Glass Shrimp, Giant Butterbur & Herring Roe. Egg Yolk Vinegar with Butterbur Bud

Japanese clear soup with Common Orient Clam, Bamboo shoots & Japanese Pepper Leaves

Steamed Abalone & Sea Urchin with Abalone Liver Sauce
Seared Alfonsino with Aromatic Jelly

Steamed Tilefish with Turnip & Garland Chrysanthemum

Seasoned Rice with “Wagyu” Beef Loin and Radish
Freshly Steamed ”Yukigura Irazumirai” Koshihikari Rice

Miso soup with Nameko Mushroom, Fried Bean Curd & Mitsuba

Soy-marinated Yam, Soy-simmered Kelp, Pickled Cucumber

Selected Sweet Tamba Black Beans
Melon with Rum Sauce, Rum Jelly, Raw Sugar Jelly & Roasted Walnut
Truffle Chocolate


Amuse Bouche

Scottish smoked salmon gravlax

Hors d’oeuvre
Caviar with egg yolk cream and crispy rice wafers
French Veal Fillet “Vitello Tonnato”
Warm salad of spring vegetables & Iberico Chorizo

* * * _  _ * * *


Grilled Beef Fillet

Accompanied by Japanese Green Asparagus and egg yolk sauce

Chicken Pot-au-feu in “Kiritanpo” style

Blue Lobster
With turnip and celeriac, Sauce Américaine

Vegetable Thai Style Glass Noodle Salad

* * * _  _ * * *

Assorted Gourmet Breads
Ciabatta – Petit Pain au Levain Bio
Organic Bread Rolll
Mixed Nut Bread

“Kotoka” Strawberry & Rhubarb in Springlike Vacherin style

Upon Request
“Dainagon” Adzuki Bean Financier “S”

Opening the menu, the first page describes JAL’s First Class food and beverage program as follows:

A dream team of talented, top-class chefs and a gourmet artist create specialties made only with premium ingredients. Your own inflight auberge is so complete we christened it “BEDD” - for bed, dining, delicious and dream – to subtly remind passengers in First Class and Business Class that they can transform their seats into snug beds after a satisfying repast.

Um… Considering how long lie-flat beds have now been an integral part of First and Business Class travel, I suspect most of us are already well aware of the fact that our seats turn into beds.

Those of you who follow my trip reports know that I appreciate a good inflight meal service more than most. This is especially true on longer flights in First Class where a nicely prepared and presented meal is an integral part of the overall First Class experience. That said, we’ve probably all encountered people who automatically dismiss airline food – even in International First Class – as abysmal and unworthy of consumption.

The Swiss-British writer and philosopher Alain de Botton makes a good observation in his book "A Week at The Airport - A Heathrow Diary": "Naturally airline food is dismal when we compare it to what we'd get on the ground but this is to miss the point. The thrill of airline food lies in the interaction between the meal and the odd place in which one is eating it. Food that, if eaten in a kitchen, would have been banal or offensive, acquires a new taste in the presence of the clouds. With the in-flight tray, we make ourselves at home in an unhomely place: we appropriate the extraterrestrial skyscape with the help of a chilled bread roll and a plastic tray of potato salad." And to think de Botton would appear to be writing about Economy Class meals!

To be sure, meals that have been prepared hours earlier, chilled and then reheated onboard the airplane no doubt do lose a bit of their original essence – but - unless you’re a gourmand of the most finicky order, to simply dismiss the food in International First Class as “bad” or “inedible” is just dunderheaded and frankly unreasonable. Indeed, take a moment to peruse the trip reports of many right here at FlyerTalk and you’ll find quite a few reporters who’ve compared their inflight meals quite favorably with those they’ve eaten in earthbound restaurants.

* * * _  _ * * *

As for JAL’s menu, it’s fairly nice and varied as First Class dining goes by today’s standards. In terms of overall offerings, Emirates offers far and away the most extensive menu in the sky but hey – one can only eat just so much and in my initial perusal of this flight’s menu, I found plenty to work with.

Last year I went with the “Hinai Jidori” chicken. It was an okay dish that was fairly simple in presentation though in terms of flavor was not in any way outstanding. The lobster dish was tempting but it’s been my experience that lobster makes a better appetizer than a main dish as the portions on most airlines aren’t very filling. So then – what to order? Fumiko waited patiently…

I decided to commence the culinary festivities with the salmon appetizer followed by the caviar and French veal fillet from the hors d’oeuvres menu. Now then, any chance I might try out a bowl of that Japanese Clear Soup with Common Orient Clam from the Japanese menu? Right on! Alright then, for the main course I will go with… the Grilled Beef Fillet. And yes, a refill on that Royal Salute would be marvelous, thanks.

My table was set with a light brown linen table cloth as opposed to the heavy white linen favored by many of the world’s finest airlines. A small rectangular plate was presented bearing packaged butter, olive oil and a rather odd serving of large salt crystals with a few peppercorns tossed in. While I might be able to grind a bit of the salt between my fingertips, I didn’t feel I would have the same success with the peppercorns. Thankfully I’ve got some extra salt and pepper packets in my condiment bag if needed.

Silverware was presented wrapped in an attractive linen napkin as opposed to being laid in place amidst the settings. Bread was offered and I selected a couple of rolls. The table settings were minimalist compared to the likes of Emirates, but they were more than sufficient to meet the task at hand.

The salmon was presented on a gleaming white rectangular dish and - if you don’t mind me saying so – it was a culinary work of art. Clearly time was taken to carefully apply an artistic drizzle of sauce, capers and roe resulting in a starter that was every bit as delicious in flavor as it was appealing in presentation. Well done, JAL! ^

Scottish Smoked Salmon Gravlax

Scottish Smoked Salmon Gravlax

Plates were cleared and the caviar was brought out next, this time on a large square plate complete with mother of pearl spoon. JAL’s is not the traditional presentation with chopped egg, onion, sour cream and blinis. That said, it is every bit as delicious, perhaps even more so. The crispy rice wafers made flavorful vehicles for the decadent caviar and the delicious egg yolk cream. My only complaint regarding this course is with myself. Why didn’t I ask for a second serving later in the flight? Next time.

Caviar Presentation on JAL

The French Veal Fillet “Vitello Tonnato” was every bit the artistic masterpiece as was the salmon appetizer before it. Honestly, this was beautiful food. Just look at these pictures! Delicious!

French Veal Fillet “Vitello Tonnato”

Allright then, let’s check out that soup. Described in the menu as Japanese Clear Soup with Common Orient Clam, Bamboo shoots and Japanese Pepper Leaves, it sounded light yet potentially flavorful - a nice alternative to the salad that I usually prefer. Well, this soup was indeed light, and there was a delicate beauty to the presentation that I couldn’t help but appreciate from an aesthetic standpoint. Beyond that, while I appreciated the lightness of the soup given the overall size and variety of the meal I’ve ordered, I tend to lean toward heartier soups and will likely order the salad next time if presented with similar options.

Japanese Common Orient Clam Soup

And finally, we come to the main course - a grilled beef fillet accompanied by Japanese green asparagus with an egg yolk sauce. Beef fillets are often hit or miss – even on the world’s finest airlines. This one was pretty good, cooked on the plus side of medium but certainly not overcooked. I liked the egg yolk sauce and the asparagus but I do think this dish could be markedly improved – by Western tastes at least – with the addition of a starch such as some roasted potatoes or even a baked macaroni and cheese. I accompanied this dish with a glass of the tasty Bordeaux. Its rich aromas and spicy notes complemented the beef perfectly. Indeed, it was tasty enough that I just had to request a second glass.

Grilled Beef Fillet

Throughout the meal courses were served and plates cleared in a timely manner. I noted with some satisfaction that by the time the last of my dinner plates had been removed there were still just less than ten hours left in the flight. My flight plan was going perfectly according to script. I informed Fumiko that I would pass on dessert but that I would like to try some of the cheeses and that 30 year old port in about an hour. Right now, it was time to check out the entertainment options.

JAL’s First Class suites are outfitted with 23” touchscreen entertainment monitors. I don’t quite get the touchscreen part since the screens are set in a fixed location at the head of the suite and would require one to get up from their seat in order to touch the screen. A casual perusal of the entertainment options revealed a decent selection of Western and Asian movies including some older classics such as The Shawshank Redemption which was also on my JAL flight last year. The older classics are where my real interest lies as most of the current movies available don’t hold much interest for me. Also available were a small variety of Western television shows and an impressive variety of documentaries.

Ultimately I ended up watching a couple of documentaries – one a fascinating program called Hello World: Chile which described hunting for the origins of the universe in Chile's Atacama Desert while the other one was called Aerosmith: Rock For The Rising Sun. No description necessary there, I should imagine…

After the documentary on Chile had ended, I rang Fumiko and requested the cheese plate service. What was delivered was one of the most well-presented cheese plates I had ever been served. Artistically arranged atop a black lacquer tray were five types of cheese accompanied by a variety of bread, crackers and fruits. What I really appreciated was the presentation. Rather than just place some cheese with traditional accoutrements atop a plate, time had been taken to artfully arrange all of the ingredients with an eye toward symmetry and visual impact. It’s these nice little touches that really make a proper First Class service such a unique experience - something you’ll remember long after the flight is over. The fact that it’s happening while speeding along 40000 feet above the planet makes it that much more special. Add to this the earthy decadence of that rich 30 year old port and you have a service highlight that’s truly exceptional.

JAL’s 23” Entertainment Monitor with Sliding Table

JAL’s First Class Cheese Course
Complete with Graham’s 30 Year Old Tawny Port

There were about eight hours left in the flight when I decided to call it a night. Local time back in Japan was approaching 11:00pm – the perfect bedtime – at least for me. I’d hardly touched the call button before a flight attendant showed up, seemingly already aware that I was ready for bed. Granted, it wasn’t a difficult deduction to make given the time of night but even so, I appreciated her quiet anticipation. She indicated that a choice of mattresses were available – essentially hard or soft surface. I chose the hard version and headed up to the lav to brush my teeth.

JAL’s 777s have two dedicated First Class lavatories located at the front of the cabin. Aside from being spotlessly clean at all times, they are also equipped with a toilet that appears to double as a bidet. Aside from that though, nothing in particular stood out about these lavs. Bidets are all well and good I suppose, but I would put more of a premium on a more spacious lavatory.

When it comes to airplane lavs, Emirates’ A380 shower spas are clearly the standard bearer. However, the other lavatory that always impressed me was the spacious First Class facility aboard Cathay Pacific’s 747s. Anybody here remember those? They were at least 4 feet wide with a large sink and a nice window on the outside world. To me at least, their best attribute was their spaciousness, not their amenities. Special soaps, creams, toothbrushes and razors et al. don’t impress me all that much since I always travel with my own brush, toothbrush and toothpaste. I’ve never understood the excitement some here have for those cheap little toothbrushes and other extras the airlines provide. My own personal toothbrush is waaay better and it along with a travel sized tube of my favorite toothpaste take up practically zero space in my carry-on.

Attentive readers may note that I didn’t mention I’d be changing into pajamas. Aside from the fact that I haven’t worn them since I was about seven years old, in a more general sense I like a cooler sleep with just sheets and/or a duvet atop me, unencumbered by the warmth and confines of pajamas. As such, I just strip down to a t-shirt and my boxer shorts – even on the plane. In preparation for this I’d already removed a t-shirt in advance of the flight and had it ready to go in my daypack.

JAL’s First Class seats are 23” wide between armrests, but when converted into their fully flatbed mode they measure an impressive 33” wide by 78” long. Although I’d thought to remove my book of the week, unfortunately I’d neglected to do so with my camera which was still in my daypack, now stored well underneath the bed. Might I suggest those of you curious for a good view of JAL’s First Class suite in its lie flat configuration do an internet search for “Japan Airlines First Class Suite Bed” and hit the images tab.

The suite was ready by the time I returned. A bottle of water had been thoughtfully placed beside the bed. Now comfortably bedecked in my Denver Broncos t-shirt, all I had left to do was strip down to my boxer shorts. And so I did – right there at my seat. While some might gasp in disbelief at what they consider inappropriate cheek on my part, the way I see it the cabin is dark and there’s no one around. Honestly, some people are such prudes. It’s not like I’m strolling around the cabin in broad daylight in my underwear. I might also add I’ve seen people doing things like picking bare feet and/or clipping toenails while sat in broad daylight amidst fellow passengers. To me at least that would seem far more beyond the pale than some guy sitting in his suite in the middle of the night in a pair of boxer shorts who’s about to get into bed.

With their width and the addition of the plush mattress, JAL’s First Class beds are amongst the finest in the sky. Overall, I’d have to say the finest sleep I’ve had on next generation lie-flat seats came aboard a Qantas A380 while flying First Class between Dallas and Sydney last September. With a westbound flight time of sixteen hours and forty minutes, I had plenty of time to sleep in and so I did, registering nearly eight hours of quality sleep. On this flight I slept quite well for about six hours.

The timing could not have been better. When I awoke we were speeding across southern Ontario on an east-southeasterly heading. The sky map indicated another two hours of flight time before our twenty minute early arrival into New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. I quickly tossed on my trousers and gave the call button a push.

Like me, Fumiko had returned from a good night’s sleep in the crew rest area and so it was her who broke down and converted my suite from bed to daytime use. Meanwhile, I toddled off to the lav to freshen up for the new day. Before heading forward however, I was asked by Fumiko if she could bring me anything to drink – some coffee or tea perhaps? Coffee would be great, thanks!

Returning to my suite, I pulled out my daypack and removed one of the primary tools of my trade. That’s right – my trusty Canon SX-160 camera. Years ago I used to lug around a bulky and heavy Nikon SLR. It took wonderful pictures but ultimately I had to weigh the inconvenience of its bulk and weight against how important the quality of its photos were to me as opposed to the size and convenience of the new generation pocket cameras, many of which were capable of taking excellent photographs of landscapes, people, airline meals, etc – all representative of many of the things I was taking pictures of.

Now armed with my trusty Canon, I was ready to commence the second meal service. Fumiko had delivered the coffee shortly after my return to the suite. I must say that as an American I’m a big fan of JAL’s First Class coffee cups. That’s a good 10oz cup there – not one of those whimpy little things favored by malnourished aesthetic types in trendy cafes. When it comes to everyday drip coffee, we Americans unapologetically like big cups and free refills, with an emphasis on both. Any business trying to charge for a second cup of drip coffee here in the U.S. (as is done in far too many other parts of the world) would likely be on its way out of business before long – and deservedly so.

Welcome Coffee and Cookie over Southern Ontario

I sucked down that first cup in near record speed, so when Fumiko returned with more coffee, cream and sugar I took a more leisurely pace on the second cup while taking time to peruse my options from the A LA CARTE menu.


“Otoriyose” In The Sky

Ochazuke, topped with Sliced Red Sea-bream over Steamed Rice and Japanese Soup Stock


Japanese Black Beef & Ginger in Sweet Soy Sauce

Assorted Japanese Brochettes

“Wagyu” Beef sirloin on skewer with wasabi flavored soy sauce powder
Bacon Asparagus Rolls on skewer
Grilled Chicken Thigh on skewer


Vegetable Thai Style Glass Noodle Salad
Spring Vegetable Minestrone

JAL Original “Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta” Ramen Noodles in Soy Sauce Soup
Japanese Hot “Udon” Noodles with edible wild plants

Raw Ham & Cheese Sandwich
“Sangenton” Pork Cutlet Sandwich

Cheese Selection
Assorted cheeses with traditional accompaniments

Assorted seasonal fresh fruit
Petit Dessert Tray – Strawberry Tart & Crunchy Cream Puff
Chocolate – Jean Paul Hevin “Fleure”

I’d had the Japanese Brochette plate on my last JAL flight and found it quite to my liking. The meat was tender and the ingredients flavorful. I’ll definitely order another one of those. I definitely will not re-order the Beef Curry which had no more bite to it than a bowl of beef broth. No - this time I think I’ll roll the dice and go with the exceptionally long named JAL Original “Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta” Ramen Noodles in Soy Sauce Soup. I then asked Fumiko about the size of the “Sangenton” Pork Cutlet Sandwich. Upon being informed that it was basically a half sandwich sliced into thirds, I decided to order it also.

It should be noted that portions are generally on the small side. Take a look at the small portions of both the soup and sandwich pictured below, not to mention the finger food sized brochettes. Most reasonable people would admit that there’s less total food here than you’d get after ordering a dinner entrée with a side salad and dessert at most restaurants.

For anyone out there distracted by the notion that this is a lot of food, consider how this report might be if I were some wasp-waisted ninny who picked at their food and slept the flight away. Hopefully the majority of visitors to the Trip Report forum are thankful for those reporters who actually enjoy the whole flight experience enough to not only try out the many various options but also have the gumption to actually photograph them – if not write fairly extensively about it all. For me, there’s a lot of personal investment in writing about this stuff. My comments, perceptions and occasional memories could never be conveyed by pictures alone. The writing is where it’s at.

And hey, check out these pictures!

Assorted Japanese Brochettes

Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta

“Sangenton” Pork Cutlet Sandwich

The brochettes were the best – moist, tender, flavorful… I could easily have settled for another plate of those with a side of rice and called it a meal. The noodle soup was okay but after years of having enjoyed what I consider to be the standard bearer for Asian soups served aboard Cathay Pacific, JAL’s offering was a distant second. I did appreciate the side dish of hot sauce offered with both the brochettes and the soup.

The pork cutlet sandwich was beautifully presented with an artistically arranged garnish. Check out the presentation – see how time was taken to carefully construct that garnish with attention to color, detail and symmetry. It definitely appealed to my artistic nature. A packet of Grey Poupon added the perfect zest to this sandwich. Nicely done, JAL!

All good things must come to an end and so it was that plates were cleared, service items returned to their stowage areas and seats returned to their full upright positions. Out my window the waters of Long Island Sound dazzled in the late afternoon sunlight. A quick glimpse around the cabin revealed that mine were the only windows open. Not for long, however. The flight attendants soon stopped by to ensure that all window shades were up for landing. For me the fifteen minutes before landing occasionally provide great inflight entertainment as we’re now low enough for the land to have relevant detail. Maybe it’s just me but I still get a thrill at seeing the land below from above. This is especially true during climb out and approach when flying into areas that I’m familiar with.

The 777-300 is a big airplane - 242 feet 4 inches long to be exact. That’s longer than even a 747 classic. Sat as I was up front in the nose of the airplane, I barely felt a thing as our wheels kissed the cold hard concrete of JFK’s 14,511 foot long runway 13R, the third-longest commercial runway in North America (The longest is the 16,000-foot runway 16R/34L at Denver International Airport. Second is the 14,512-foot runway 8L/26R at Las Vegas’ McCarran International.)

We pulled up at Terminal 1 and parked next to an Air France A380 that was just getting ready to push back for its 3620 mile flight across the Atlantic to Paris. I watched as the jet bridges slowly disconnected from the aircraft and briefly entertained a vision of myself comfortably sat in a First Class suite on the lower deck. Someday…

Gathering my gear, I paused briefly to thank Fumiko and her crew for a superb flight. From seat comfort to meals and especially service, it was totally First Class! Although other airlines such as the big three from the Gulf nations may provide a few more whistles and bells, JAL provides a solid First Class product that is sure to satisfy most any seasoned traveler. I hope that all of you reading this get a chance to someday enjoy JAL’s hospitality from the comfort of its fine First Class suites.

* * * _  _ * * *

Every time I’ve returned to the U.S. over the past five years, I have been doubly appreciative of my membership in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program. No longer do I have to wait in long lines that move at a glacial pace. Now I just check in through a kiosk, verify my fingerprints on a scanner and complete a simple customs declaration. The kiosk then issues a transaction receipt and directs me to baggage claim or the exit. Only once have I ever been directed to see a customs official and that turned out to be a mere formality.

I caught a shuttle van over to Newark Airport and checked into my room for the night at the Ramada Plaza Hotel.
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:56 pm
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Day Twenty-Two
United Express Economy Class ~ ERJ-170 ~ Newark, NJ to Raleigh/Durham, NC ~ 1235p – 218p

After having written of all the luxury aloft aboard the likes of Cathay and JAL, I’m finding it difficult to muster the inspiration to write anything remotely entertaining about an hour and a half flight aboard a regional jet on which I received a glass of ginger ale. That said, the flight served its purpose – quick and affordable transport between Newark and Raleigh – and the service was friendly and efficient.

In Raleigh I picked up a rental car and set off down the highway to Rock Hill, South Carolina. There I had a nice visit with my old eighth grade history teacher and his wife. We’ve managed to keep in touch over the forty some odd years since I was his student and it was nice to catch up in person again after a hiatus of twenty-six years.

Afterward I drove the 170 miles back to Raleigh to commence the final portion of this trip back home to Alaska. It was truly comforting to know that tomorrow I’d be sat in the First Class cabin of a pair of ex-Virgin America A320s while winging it cross country to San Francisco and beyond to Seattle and Ketchikan.

Day Twenty-Four
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ A320-200 ~ Raleigh/Durham, NC to San Francisco, CA ~ 805a – 1113a
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ A320-200 ~ San Francisco, CA to Seattle, WA ~ 1245p – 248p
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-900 ~ Seattle, WA to Ketchikan, AK ~ 745p – 1021p

I awoke to a beautiful misty spring morning as only North Carolina can deliver. Shower, coffee and a complimentary USA Today preceded my shuttle to the airport. Having printed my boarding pass before leaving the hotel, I strolled through the TSA Pre✓ lane and made my way to American’s Admiral Club for a little pre-flight lounging.

Alaska’s gates are located at the end of the D Concourse - as far as one can possibly walk from the Admirals Club. This seems to have been the story of my life on this trip and others of late. Oh well… consider the exercise benefits!

I’ve flown out of RDU about a dozen times over the past couple of years, always aboard Alaska 737s. It was a bit strange then to see the red and white Virgin America A320 adorned with the appellation “Air VH1” waiting at the end of the jetway. On the other hand, it was with considerable anticipation that I strolled down the jetway while looking forward to my comfortable accommodations in seat 2A, one of only 8 white leather recliners installed in the A320’s forward cabin.

Alaska recently consummated its takeover of Virgin America but it will be a while before the cabin interiors and certain aspects of the catering are brought into line with Alaska’s standards. Although Alaska’s stated intent is to combine the best of both airlines’ products into a single new and improved service, most Virgin America loyalists are already in mourning over the loss of what was probably the finest inflight catering in America along with, in the coming months, the loss of arguably the finest First Class recliners in the sky.

For the time being however, those recliners are still installed fleet wide on all ex-Virgin America Airbuses and so it was that I arrived to find my attractive white leather recliner adorned with a large packaged pillow and duvet set. These were of much better quality than the usual airline pillows and blankets but since at this point in the flight I had no need for them I stashed them in the spacious overhead bin. Rather surprisingly there are no storage closets aboard Virgin’s Airbuses (Maybe Virgin’s traditional passengers are too hip to wear a sports jacket or blazer ) so I carefully folded my blazer and placed it in the overhead with my bag and the pillow set. Seatmate had already arrived and greeted me with a friendly hello before returning to two folders worth of work that would ultimately keep him busy throughout the flight.

Earlier this winter I had my first experience with Virgin America’s First Class while flying aboard an A320 between Washington National and San Francisco. At that time I was really looking forward to checking out the much vaunted First Class recliners with their 55” pitch and exceptional recline; however upon sitting in the seat for the first time I remember my disappointment at how uncomfortably hard it was.

Virgin America’s First Class seat
Photo courtesy of Virgin America

We’ve all seen the pictures. These seats look fantastic and the legroom is of course outstanding, but they are otherwise rock hard! Seriously, there was nothing at all soft or welcoming about them. Now it’s no secret that I’ve got a chronically sore back, but let me tell you – I’ve sat in a lot of First Class seats in my life and this one was one of the least comfortable. Sure, the extra recline and leg rest are impressive, but knowing what I do now, I honestly prefer the First Class comfort found aboard Alaska’s newly reconfigured 737-800 and -900 aircraft.

For the time being, the crews aboard ex-Virgin flights are themselves ex-Virgin employees. As such, so also are certain aspects of the onboard catering and the overall inflight service. Coffee and orange were offered, followed shortly thereafter by the distribution of menu cards for this morning’s 2,390 mile, five hour and ten minute flight across the continent to San Francisco. Let’s have a look at that menu, shall we?

Raleigh to San Francisco


Starbucks® Coffee & Teavana TM/MC Tea

Strawberry Lime Smoothie Shot

Blended Smoothie with strawberries, fresh squeezed lime and orange juice, banana and low-fat yogurt

Citrus Fruit & Honey Mascarpone
Fresh orange and grapefruit segments served over honey-whipped mascarpone cheese and garnished with toasted Marcona almonds and fresh mint


Beecher’s Flagship Frittata

Savory frittata filled with Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, sautéed wild mushrooms and fresh dill.
Served with crispy mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and oven roasted tomatoes.

Quinoa Oatmeal Cake
Pan-seared cake made from lightly sweetened steel-cut oats, black quinoa, and dried figs. Served with honey-infused Greek yogurt and fresh berries tossed in rose petal water and passion fruit puree.

* * * _  _ * * *


Chipotle Hummus

Served with whole wheat pita wedges and fresh vegetables

I was mildly surprised to see the inclusion of a pre-arrival snack – at least on the printed menu. Alaska Airlines has long provided a round of almonds and/or even the occasional snack basket on its trans-cons but until today I’d never seen the snack course listed separately on the menu. Alaska has recently introduced an upgraded inflight catering product complete with menu cards and a choice of entrees even on flights as short as 675 miles. Adding the snack course to the menu card is a nice touch.

Service commenced at a leisurely pace, beginning at about forty minutes after takeoff. I started off with a Screwdriver and another cup of coffee (2 creams, please) followed by the Beecher’s Flagship Frittata for my main course. I always go with the most elaborate entrée – typically the egg dish on breakfast flights – mainly because fruit and oatmeal are normally my main breakfast choices at home. Truth be told, about the only time I eat eggs is when I’m eating out – as I am now.

Despite having over five hours with which to provide a nice course by course meal service, our flight attendant instead elected to serve it all at once atop a single tray. Am I the only guy that’s bothered by stuff like this? I grew up in an era when airlines took pride in both their meal offerings and the style in which they were served. I remember nicely presented course by course services on flights as short as Dallas to Chicago (where four of us sat around a table and enjoyed luncheon served from the trolley as we flew home from a session at the American Airlines Academy) and the notion of dumping everything on a single tray during a transcon flight would have been unthinkable. These days however, there are a lot more inflight distractions such as inflight entertainment systems loaded with movies, tv shows and games or personal laptops or tablets on which to work or be entertained. Perhaps these days more passengers prefer a more expedited meal service, especially since most of today’s First Class meals are pretty much on par with those served in Coach in years past. Many years, I’m afraid.

Beecher’s Flagship Frittata

That said, this was a pretty good meal. Being a big fan of smoothies, I quickly polished mine off before ever getting a chance to photograph it as part of the overall meal service. Oh well. I’m sure you know what a smoothie looks like by now. Mainly, this was very likely the best tasting smoothie I’ve ever had aloft. I’d happily pay more in advance of the flight to ensure a larger portion (say, 4 times as large as in Jamba Juice size) than the tiny little container Alaska serves theirs in.

The frittata was nicely seasoned and exceptionally tasty with the addition of those delicious Yukon Gold potatoes. Salt and pepper were provided in Virgin’s distinctive little plastic airplane which, according to our flight attendant, may very well be the most commonly pilfered item of inflight service accoutrements in airline history. That said, she did ask me if I’d like to keep mine as a souvenir and I of course said yes. It’ll make a nice addition to my other one which I shamelessly absconded with off my first flight this past winter.

Time passed quickly as we sped west over the center of the country. Unfortunately clouds blanketed the Rocky Mountain region as we flew over central Colorado and Utah, but I nonetheless had plenty to entertain myself with newspapers, magazines and of course this trip report which – at the time of its writing aboard this flight - was still in its infancy.

It used to be that I was so excited to not only be writing a trip report but to also actually have an audience for that report that I’d find a lot of time during my travels to put in work on it. These days – after having submitted over seventy trip reports here at FlyerTalk – I find I spend more time actually engaged in my travels and their activities while saving the actual writing of the trip reports for times like on long flights or when I get home. At present I’m writing this portion three and a half months after the actual flights took place. I hope despite the passage of time that you all still find most of this reasonably relevant. If I ever get my trip report completed from three weeks of First and Business Class travel all over Australia last autumn, it’ll have been submitted over a year late. That said, given the sheer volume of trip reports – many far superior not to mention photographically convenient to anything I could type up - I doubt anybody will miss it if I never get that report submitted as trip reports covering Australian travel are a dime a dozen here on FT.

The hummus dip snack was the standard hummus plate which Alaska has been serving on its shorter mid-morning and afternoon flights for years. I’ve never been a big fan of it as a main offering but as an additional snack on this five hour transcon I thought it made a good impression. Sorry – it didn’t seem worthy of a photo, however.

Arrival in San Francisco was right on time. We touched down smoothly and taxied straight in to our gate without delay. Were that all flights into big spread out airports like SFO could end so expeditiously. As an added advantage, this same aircraft that flew me across country into San Francisco would also be doing the honors up to Seattle in an hour and a half. The only thing that would have made this layover any more pleasant would have been the addition of a nearby lounge. Alas, despite my lifetime membership in the United Club as well as up to date membership with the Alaska Club and Priority Pass, there were no lounges anywhere nearby.

* * * _  _ * * *

Boarding for my 12:45pm departure up to Seattle commenced at about 12:10pm. This time I was seated in row 1 – once again on the window. Despite this being a bulkhead seat, it still benefited from the 55” pitch, being separated from the boarding door by waist high wall topped with a clear plastic divider.

It’s long been Alaska’s practice to not offer pre-departure alcoholic beverages, much to the dismay of many of its frequent flyers. I’m rather ambivalent about it all. Sometimes it’s nice to have a cocktail while still on the ground but most of the time it’s not that important to me. Today however, pre-departure drinks – including alcohol - were offered. Since the aircraft was an Airbus, the crew was ex-Virgin, so I’m sure that probably had a lot to do with it. Still, it being only a little past noon, I passed on the cocktail option and instead requested a glass of ice water.

Shortly after most everyone appeared to have boarded, menu cards were passed out. This flight up to Seattle checks in at 678 miles – apparently just enough to qualify for Alaska’s newly enhanced catering – if only by three miles. I’ve flown this route many times and in years past we might have been offered either a simple salad or at most a small sandwich. Today however, I was looking forward to checking out the not one but two options to be offered as part of the new service. Let’s have a look, eh?

San Francisco to Seattle

Warm Mixed Nuts


Flank Steak Salad

Sliced flank steak, mesclun greens, green papaya, mint, fresh avocado, lime wedges, English cucumber, feta cheese and cilantro. Served with a creamy passionfruit and citrus dressing on the side.

Protein Plate
Protein plate with walnuts, hummus, hardboiled egg, Port Salut cheese, grapes, orange segments, baby carrots, strawberries and grilled pita bread.

Hmm… these are the exact same meal choices I was offered aboard my Virgin America flight on this route two months ago. It’s worth noting however that that flight departed SFO at 930pm, so back then these choices rated as a late night snack on Virgin. Today they serve as a full lunch on Alaska. That late night Virgin flight also included a pass with an impressive snack basket.

My first ever protein plate was served as part of a single choice only service between Kotzebue and Anchorage last November. I wasn‘t impressed and remember the boiled egg half as being my favorite part of the “meal”. The protein plate I saw served on Virgin two months ago was much more impressive than Alaska’s version as offered on the OTZ-ANC flight. The VX plate was practically brimming with food including mini-Pita breads, a variety of cheeses including Brie, a nicely sized portion of hummus and a bunch of grapes to mention just a few of the many items.

Returning to the present, for this flight I requested the Flank Steak Salad while seatmate ordered the protein plate. When our meals were served, it was interesting to compare the differences from what Virgin had served us two months ago. My Flank Steak Salad was comprised of most all of the same ingredients – just less of them. This was particularly true of the meat which was a cut noticeably thinner and comprised only about half the portion of what had been offered by Virgin. The same held true of the protein plate. Though it was quite a bit nicer than the skimpy collection I’d seen offered out of Kotzebue back in November, it was still about 30% less food than I’d seen offered on Virgin’s flight two months ago.

Now who knows – it could well be that those generous meal portions may have played a significant role in what ultimately contributed to Virgin’s poor returns - to the point where the airline eventually found itself looking for a buyer. Nobody likes it when the bean counters turn their attention to inflight meal service, but in the interests of running – or attempting to run - a profitable operation, meal quality and quantity are often amongst the first casualties.

As a passenger I’ve been fortunate to have logged a couple thousand flights during the seventies and eighties when many U.S. airlines actually promoted their catering as part of their marketing efforts. Because the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated fares and many flights to smaller markets were subsidized by the government, making money while offering fine dining aloft was a viable proposition back then. I remember when TWA used to advertise steak on all of its meal flights out of Denver – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and it was good meat, too. We’re talking actual sirloin as opposed to the comparatively bland tenderloin now proffered by most airlines. When I worked at the original Frontier Airlines, we were known for top flight catering that included such entrees as Beef Wellington, Flank Steak and Wild Rice or Steak and Langostino. And we’re talking Coach meals here! Those were great days, my friends…

My last flight of the day came after a five hour layover in Seattle. Work related chores required me to rent a car in Seattle for approximately three and a half hours, but it was all time well and profitably spent. Rather surprisingly, I managed to rent that full size car for just $26.00 for the day.

Back at the airport, I had just enough time for a quick visit to the N Concourse Alaska Lounge where hot soup and cold beer were available. I had a bowl of the Italian Wedding soup - a delicious combination of Acini de pepe pasta, vegetables and meatballs. A pint of delicious Manny’s Pale Ale accompanied it admirably.

On board the newly configured 737-900, I settled into seat 2D, kicked off my shoes and reveled in the 41” pitch. Where Alaska’s First Class was once amongst the most cramped in the country, the addition of five more inches of legroom mean that it is now considerably more spacious - with enough room for me to comfortably cross my legs.

Seatmate nodded a sleepy greeting. She had flown in from Norway earlier that afternoon and was dealing with significant jetlag. Back in Oslo it was approaching 4:00am. She reclined her seat shortly after takeoff and slept blissfully through the rest of the flight.

As for me, it was only 11:45pm back at my point of origin. I too had had a pretty long day of flying, having logged 3070 miles since departing North Carolina earlier this morning. Add to that two and a half hours of driving around Seattle and, all things considered, I was feeling pretty good.

Flight time to Ketchikan was announced at one hour and forty-eight minutes.

It should be noted here that I could have easily caught a flight directly into Fairbanks from Seattle. However, I’ve got a bit of time to spare before returning to work and since the Alaska Marine Highway system is still offering affordable off-peak fares, I decided to spend a bit extra and take the ferry between Ketchikan and Juneau. From Juneau I’ll use a 7,500 mile Alaska Airlines saver award to return home to Fairbanks.

A double Woodford on the rocks got this flight off to a nice start. Alaska started offering Woodford Reserve a couple of years ago, most likely in response to increased competition from Delta where this fine bourbon has long been a staple in its First Class cabin. Over the past couple of years I’ve also enjoyed Woodford Reserve while flying up front on the likes of Emirates, British Airways and Japan Airlines.

Dinner this evening was a pleasant surprise – a tray of Lemon Grass Chicken complete with a side salad. Even our flight attendant was surprised as this flight usually rates not much better than a salad. No menu card was provided and we briefly discussed the possibility that there may have been a catering mistake. These are changing times for Alaska’s inflight catering however, so perhaps meals like this are part of the new plan even for shorter flights. The mileage calculator at webflyer.com indicates that the distance between Seattle and Ketchikan is 676 miles – just over the 675 mile threshold for the new enhanced catering initiative. Whatever the reason, I was thankful for the culinary upgrade as the chicken was moist, tender and delicious especially with the addition of the flavorful side sauce. The salad even came with a small bottle of zesty oil and balsamic vinegar – quite an upgrade over the decidedly inferior “Naturally Fresh” brand previously used.

A hitherto unheard of side salad on the SEA-KTN flight. ^

Lemongrass Chicken Dinner

We descended into Ketchikan through low clouds and light rain. This was hardly unexpected. Ketchikan receives over 150” of rain annually with an average of just 100 sunny days per year. People here don’t tan, they rust! Here, check out this great postcard depicting the dangers of exposure to sunlight in southeastern Alaska. The only effective recourse against being exposed to too much sunshine is to quickly run inside and take a cold shower.

Ketchikan’s airport is located on Gravina Island, just west of Ketchikan on the other side of the Tongass Narrows. Passengers must take a seven-minute ferry ride across the channel to get from the airport into town. Ferries leave every half hour. Local taxi companies are well attuned to flight arrival times and so there was no shortage of available cabs to take me to my hotel for the night – the Ketchikan Super 8.
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Old Oct 7, 18, 9:59 pm
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Day Twenty-Five
Alaska Marine Highway First Class ~ M.V. Columbia ~ Ketchikan, AK to Juneau, AK ~ 200p – 915a +1

After a good night’s sleep, I awoke to considerably better conditions than the night before. A mixture of sun and clouds brightened the day outside and I was thankful that I had not completely closed my curtains the night before. I’d slept in until almost 10:00am local time and so had only about an hour to enjoy a shower and a cup of in-room coffee before checking out and catching the local city transit bus downtown.

One of Ketchikan’s more noted attractions is the famous Creek Street. The street is actually a boardwalk mounted on stilts set on a high slope along the east side of Ketchikan Creek. Built in 1903, Creek Street was originally home to Ketchikan’s Red Light District. That activity was banned in 1954 and Creek Street is now home to a number of quaint shops and restaurants. I paused on a bridge over the creek to take a picture, and then continued on to the entrance to the funicular that ascends 130 feet up the mountain to the Cape Fox Lodge.

Ketchikan’s famous Creek Street

The funicular up to Cape Fox Lodge

I don’t recall exactly when I first discovered the Cape Fox Lodge but I’m thankful I did. The Heen Kahidi Restaurant offers a rustic Pacific Northwest ambience with large picture windows providing a spectacular view of Ketchikan and the Tongass Narrows below. The menu is affordably priced and fond memories of the Halibut & Pesto Flatbread Sandwich linger with me to this day.

Heen Kahidi Restaurant Ambience

It was about 12:30pm when I caught the city bus over to the Ketchikan Ferry Terminal. The bus stopped conveniently just across the street and I wheeled my roll-a-bord across the parking lot and into the terminal where I collected my boarding pass for the nineteen hour sailing up to Juneau.

By the way, the “Alaska Marine Highway” is not a beautiful Alaskan coastal road. The name can be a bit confusing to some since there are no roads to or between the communities of Southeastern Alaska. Once known as the Alaska Ferry System, the name was changed to the Alaska Marine Highway shortly after Alaska gained its statehood in 1959. One story has it that the new State of Alaska had requested federal funding for the Alaska Ferry System fleet but their request was denied by the Federal government on the grounds that only highway systems are eligible for Federal transportation funds. The State of Alaska then renamed the Alaska Ferry System to the Alaska Marine Highway and lo and behold, the federal funds began to flow. Funny how government works sometimes, isn’t it?

To this day, the communities throughout Alaska’s southeastern panhandle remain accessible only by air and sea, so the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway continue to play a vital role in the transport of people, freight and vehicles. There are currently eleven ferries in the fleet, some of them fairly small. The route system stretches as far south as Bellingham, Washington and as far west as Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

I took my first ride along the Alaska Marine Highway back in 1985. Myself and a bunch of friends from Denali rode the M.V. Malaspina on the four day, three night run from Haines, Alaska all the way down to Seattle. We were blessed with excellent autumn weather along with one of the finest displays of northern lights I’ve ever witnessed. Rather than book cabins or sit in the passenger lounges inside the ship, we all just set up tents on the top deck or slept on chaise loungers under the solarium. There were quite a few other folks up there doing the same thing. Hacky sacks were boppin’, beer was discreetly flowing and a couple of guitars made their presence known over the course of the journey. It was a memorable experience, one that I’ve managed to repeat eight or nine times since.

Life on the Alaska Marine Highway - 1985

Your trip reporter toasts his good fortune with a travel companion - 1985

Hacky-Sack on the deck at twilight - 1985

This afternoon’s departure will be aboard the M/V Columbia – the largest ship in the Alaska Marine Highway fleet. I first rode this ship back in 1990, but then for only a short journey up the Lynn Canal between Juneau and Haines. This afternoon’s trip would be considerably longer – long enough to thoroughly enjoy all of the ship’s many amenities including a first for me: a stateroom. That’s right – after years of sleeping on chaise lounges under the solarium or on the floor atop my Thermarest pad in one of the many lounges, this time I would be splurging and shelling out an additional $126.00 for a 2-berth stateroom. As such, I consider this trip to be a “First Class” passage and so was anxious to board and check out my new quarters.

* * * _  _ * * *

Constructed in 1974 by Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle, Washington, the M/V Columbia has been the flagship vessel for the Alaska ferry system for 44 years. It normally serves the major inside passage communities between Bellingham, Washington and Skagway, Alaska. The ship is named after the Columbia Glacier which itself was named after Columbia University. It is one of several glaciers in the Prince William Sound area that were named for elite US colleges by the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899.

Per the Alaska Marine Highway website, the M/V Columbia is designed to carry 499 passengers and has a vehicle capacity of 2,660 linear feet, which is equal to approximately 133 twenty-foot vehicles. There are 45 four-berth and 56 two-berth cabins. Additional onboard amenities include a full service dining room as well as a cafeteria-style restaurant, a pair of observation lounges with comfortable chairs, a covered heated solarium, a movie lounge, showers, a coin-operated laundry and lockers, writing and quiet lounges, and a children's play area.

Here’s a schematic of the ship’s interior:

M/V Columbia Deck Guide

A light rain had begun to fall as I began the long walk down the automobile gangplank onto the ship. It’s an inauspicious entrance as you enter through the cavernous vehicle storage deck. The ceilings are almost 20 feet high to accommodate the occasional tractor-trailer and today there were three on board. Only a handful of cars were in evidence, but then this is still the off-season. A month from now this hold will be packed!

A uniformed deck hand got my attention with a wave and directed me to an elevator that would take me to the upper decks. My cabin was located on Upper Deck 5, as was the Purser’s Station where I would need to check in and receive the keys to my room.

I haven’t ridden a lot of ships, so I’m always amazed at how big they are. The Columbia, at 418 feet long and 85 feet wide, feels like a big ship to me. Compared to the huge cruise ships that ply these waters during the summer months though, the Columbia’s practically a tug boat. Even so, I was still impressed by the spaciousness of the Purser’s Station and lounge.

M/V Columbia Purser’s Station

The purser, a friendly middle-aged lady named Marcy, welcomed me aboard with a smile. After collecting my boarding pass, she provided me with keys to my cabin and an extra blanket. I was assigned cabin 139, located just down the hallway behind me and to my left.

Many of my trips aboard the Alaska Marine Highway have come during the off season when ridership is low – sometimes exceptionally so. On a couple of occasions during the winter months, I’ve been one of less than a dozen passengers aboard a 300+ passenger ferry. According to the purser, we had only about 50 passengers onboard today.

This would be my first time having private enclosed accommodations aboard an Alaska Marine Highway ship. On all of my previous trips, I’d always been very comfortable setting up camp in a remote corner of one of the lounges. For me that meant a Thermarest Pad and a pillow. While others might shy away from such open accommodations, I grew up traveling this way. There was once a time that I really had no other choice. For many years I hitch hiked back and forth across the American West, sleeping wherever I could find a quiet out of the way place. Under a tree, behind some bushes – wherever so long as it was reasonably safe and out of the public eye. Throughout it all I never felt put out or down on my luck. For me the greatest thrill was in just being out there on the road. It was all part of the great adventure that was my early traveling life, an adventure made all the more exciting for the sheer unpredictability and unknown aspects of it all. I never worried about where I’d sleep for the night. I’d work that out when the time came. Somehow I can’t help but feel that life would have been a lot less entertaining back then had I been staying in hotels each night.

Now, forty years later, times have changed a bit. Though mentally I still have no compunctions about sleeping on airport floors or in ferry lounges, physically I feel a lot more comfortable having a bed to sleep on. Thankfully, I’m also now in a position where I can afford to pay for hotel rooms as needed. That wasn’t always the case in years past. Where once I would have scoffed at the notion of paying an additional $126.00 for a cabin on this 19 hour ferry trip, for this trip at least I consider it money well spent and am definitely looking forward to the comfort and privacy that my cabin will provide.

So then, let’s have a look at my accommodations…

Opening the door to my 2 bed cabin

Comfortable yet spartan

Modular Water Closet

Cabins aboard the M/V Columbia will never be confused with those aboard a proper cruise ship. I would describe mine as comfortable yet spartan. A bunk bed was mounted along one wall. Across from it were a small desk and a small closet with a single padded chair facing them. A wash basin and mirror completed the amenities. At the entrance to my cabin was a door leading to the bathroom – a well-organized molded plastic room that included a spacious walk-in shower.

Tossing my daypack on the chair, I took a seat on the bed and then took a moment to stretch out. Oh yeah – this’ll do just fine. The mattress was pretty cheap but the overall space and lighting was excellent. I switched pillows with the bunk above and then spent the remaining time until departure comfortably stretched out while catching up on the day’s news via that morning’s edition of the Juneau Empire.

A blast from the ship’s horn signaled departure was imminent. A barely perceptible shudder then indicted we were powering away from the dock. Just down the hall from my cabin was a doorway leading outside onto the passageway that ran along the forward part of our deck. I headed outside and watched as the Ketchikan waterfront receded into the distance. As we cruised past Gravina Island upon which the airport sits, I could clearly make out the ramp that led from the terminal apron up to the runway.

Ketchikan Airport as seen from the ferry

It wasn’t long before a brief squall forced me back inside. It was time to head upstairs and check out the rest of the ship. With nineteen hours of sailing ahead of us until our arrival in Juneau, some people might be easily overcome by the tedium of long distance travel. In the fast paced, instant gratification world we live in today, most travel has been reduced to a few hours in a sterile grey or dark blue upholstered tube of an airplane where window shades shut out the outside world and attention is focused on the artificial entertainment provided through the airline’s IFE or our personal tablets or laptops. Those in need of such diversions will be happy to know that there is no shortage of electrical outlets in either the cabins or the public areas of the ship.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for sailing through some of the prettiest landscape on the planet, landscape that is best enjoyed through open eyes supporting a mindset appreciative of this planet’s natural wonders, especially when they’re right there in front of you as opposed to on a computer screen via a BBC documentary. While for many stuff like this is enjoyable but boring after a short while, I actually rather enjoy relaxing in a comfy chair while watching the world go by and so it was that I headed up to the sparsely populated forward viewing lounge where I found a great seat to enjoy the scenery (including keeping a keen eye out for the occasional breaching whale) for a couple of hours.

Northbound through Alaska’s Inside Passage

Sunny day cruising along Alaska’s coast

The view from the lounge

Comfortable seating and large windows allowed for a nice view as we steamed north through the narrow channel between Prince of Wales Island and the mainland. The warmth of the spring season had still not been sufficient to completely melt the snow on the surrounding mountains. The white snow contrasted nicely with the green spruce forests and dark blue waters of the Inside Passage.

Afternoon Delight

After a couple of hours, I headed back to my cabin for a short nap. It was so nice to be able to stretch out comfortably on the spacious lower bunk. I read for about half an hour before lapsing off into a contented slumber for the next hour or so.

It was about 6PM when I made my way upstairs to the ship’s dining room. Located on the Boat Deck (Level 7) at the rear of the ship, its large windows and spacious ambience made for a really nice dining atmosphere. I took a seat near a window and took in the view.

MV Columbia Dining Room

Table View

There’s lots of space between tables

The last time I rode the Columbia was nearly 28 years ago in November of 1990. Back in those days this dining room featured linen table cloths, a full menu including bar service and a bevy of nicely uniformed servers. Alas, times have changed – and not for the better.

The Alaska Marine Highway is operated by the Alaska State Department of Transportation. The state budget is predicated upon projected oil revenue and with the significant drop in oil prices two years ago, the state has been hustling to make ends meet ever since. The Alaska Marine Highway retired two vessels, one of them my favorite – the M/V Taku – and has made considerable cutbacks to the onboard service. The bars on all boats are now closed and alcohol is available only in the dining rooms during meal times. The menu, which once boasted a wide variety of appetizers, entrees and lighter meals now lists just a couple of main dishes in addition to a daily special and a couple of sandwiches. It’s now posted on a little 5x7” piece of poster board, mounted in a clear plastic stand-up display - much like an advertisement for the daily special.

It’s possible that this stripped down menu is an off season aberration and the overall service and options will improve once the high season kicks in. I asked my server about it but she claimed to have no idea. What a sorry state of affairs. Still, here I am and I’m hungry so let’s go with… the Daily Special – Chicken Parmigiana.

I’ve been served Chicken Parmigiana a few times, enough times to know that it’s usually one or more breaded chicken cutlets topped with marinara sauce and either mozzarella, parmesan or provolone cheese. What I was served tonight was two little cutlets – each of them smaller than a typical chicken leg – accompanied by a scoop of rice and some carrots. There was no sauce. There was no cheese. It was more like Chicken Padukah.

AMH Chicken Whatever

That said, this meal still tasted pretty good. At the same time, if only based on portion size I don’t think it lived up to the $16.00 price tag on the menu. Again, while it could be that tonight’s stripped down meal – budget shortfall notwithstanding – was a temporary aberration resulting from the off-season blues, next time I ride the ferry I think I’ll do a bit of pre-trip investigation as to the food service and – if need be - consider self-catering.

After dinner, I stepped outside to take a couple of pictures…

Sunset on the Inside Passage

Evening Shadows

Last light of day

M/V Columbia at Wrangell

For me at least, time passes rather quickly on long trips like this. If I’m not taking in the scenery or chatting with fellow passengers, I’ve always got a book or magazine to read as well as my laptop on which to occasionally put in some work on this report. It should be noted here that wireless internet service is not provided by the Alaska Marine Highway although one can occasionally pick up internet service while in certain ports.

Prior to departure from Ketchikan I’d purchased a 375 ml bottle of Jack Daniels and joined a couple from Boise, Idaho who were heading up to Skagway, Alaska for summer tourism jobs. Outside of Denali, I can’t imagine a nicer place to spend a summer working in Alaska than Skagway (although there are likely many equals). Located at the top of the Chilkoot Inlet, Skagway is surrounded by rugged mountains and lush forests. The town is home to gold-rush-era buildings, now preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad offers spectacular scenery while climbing 3000 feet up White Pass to the Canadian border and beyond. I visited there three years ago and rode the White Pass railroad on a beautiful sunny day. You can read about that trip right https://www.flyertalk.com/forum/25917164-post19.html]HERE

It was about 10:00pm when I returned to my cabin, took a quick shower and then stretched out on my bunk and read myself to sleep. It had been another great day of scenery and relaxation while cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage. Honestly, short of a First Class suite aboard the likes of Emirates or The Orient Express, this for me is travel at its finest. Spectacular scenery, comfortable accommodations, a tasty meal (I’m a reasonably forgiving guy) and some enjoyable social interaction – it’s been a good ride.

Day Twenty-Six
Alaska Marine Highway First Class ~ M.V. Columbia ~ Arrival in Juneau, AK ~ 915a
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-700 ~ Juneau, AK to Anchorage, AK ~ 104p – 241p
Alaska Airlines First Class ~ 737-800 ~ Anchorage, AK to Fairbanks, AK ~ 743p – 839p

I carry a cheap travel alarm clock that I purchased for about $6.00 nearly eight years ago. It’s small and sufficiently noisy to wake me up easily. Best of all, it’s reliable and runs forever on a pair of AAA batteries. I set it to go off at 6:30am. The Columbia would be terminating its trip at Juneau and we’d been informed the night before that breakfast would only be available until 7:30am so that both the crew and the passengers would have time to get ready for our arrival into Juneau.

Out on the deck, sunshine and shadows combined to create some spectacular vistas…

Sunrise on the Inside Passage

Morning Shadows

A fine spring day along Alaska’s coast

Hot coffee and orange juice awaited me in the bright and sunny dining room. I love all the windows in this place! The menu, though limited, offered a good looking Denver Omelet so that’s what I ordered – sourdough toast with butter, please.

First Class Breakfast Omelet

Now that was an excellent omelet! Add to that the ambience of sitting at a table alongside one of the big picture windows looking out on the coastal splendor of Alaska on this beautiful spring morning and, well, this day was off to a great start.

After breakfast, I headed out on to the deck for another quick photo as we made our initial approach to Juneau’s Auke Bay Ferry Terminal. The early morning air still held considerable chill so I didn’t tarry long out there. Back in my cabin, I collected my gear and awaited the call to disembark.

Approaching Juneau

Riding the ferry for this part of my trip home was a good call. I was fortunate to have such nice weather through a part of the world where the conditions are often less than ideal. Even had it been cloudy however, I really just enjoy the pace of travel like this. Despite having logged almost five and a half million miles of air travel, my preference for continental travel is land based travel, i.e. road, rail or sea provided the latter is coastal in nature. I don’t think I’d enjoy cruising out in the middle of the open ocean nearly so much. I love the scenery and the ambience of travel aboard a conveyance large enough to be comfortable yet small enough to still provide a sense of intimacy. My ride aboard the M/V Columbia ticked off all the boxes in that regard.

After docking in Juneau, I turned in my room key to the purser and made my way down to the car deck and then outside up the auto ramp and into the terminal. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry terminal is located 13 miles out of Juneau along the Glacier Highway. Short of taxis, there is no public transport available into Juneau. Given the daylight hour however, and the heavily traveled Glacier Highway, hitchhiking into town is a breeze. I walked across the large vehicle assembly area and up on to the highway where I caught a ride straight to the airport within 10 minutes.

Upon checking in for my Alaska flights up to Anchorage and beyond to Fairbanks, I was happy to discover I’d been upgraded on AS 65, the 100pm departure to Anchorage – this despite traveling on an award ticket between Juneau and Fairbanks. I honestly don’t know how many other airlines – if any – upgrade non-revenue award travel ticket holders, but I must say I am extremely thankful that Alaska does. Indeed, it’s hard – for me at least – to imagine any airline that takes better care if its top tier elite passengers than Alaska.

With two and a half hours until flight time, I found there wasn’t a lot to do in Juneau’s small airport. Aside from a fairly good sized gift shop on the lower level, it used to have a very nice full service restaurant upstairs but that closed about five years ago and now all that’s available landside is a full service bar offering a few pre-packaged items like sweet rolls and a sandwich or two. On the other side of security is a small café selling overpriced sandwiches, snacks and drinks. There is an attached bar in a back room but I believe it’s only open in the afternoon. I ordered a coffee in the landside bar and sat down at a table to watch the ESPN sports report on a nearby television.

Boarding for flight 65 to Anchorage was called at 12:30pm. Our aircraft was a 737-700, an aircraft which has become fairly ubiquitous throughout Alaska’s southeast coastal communities since the retirement of the 737-400 combis. Alaska originally purchased twenty-two of the smaller -700s - at the time Boeing’s longest range member of the 737 family - but then sold off about half the fleet as new longer range 737-800s and 900s joined the fleet. I understand Alaska’s plan is to convert some of its remaining -700s into combis (They’ve already converted one into the world’s first 737-700 freighter) but the aircraft operating today’s flight was in the standard two-class configuration.

Flight time for this 570 mile trip up the coast to Anchorage was one hour and twenty-eight minutes. With no competition on the route, Alaska had no real incentive to offer much in the way of a meal and so it was that the food offered on this luncheon hour flight was the dreaded hummus and pita plate – an offering better suited as an appetizer than a snack or luncheon. Consisting of a small ramekin of hummus accompanied by three miniature pita rounds and a couple sticks of cucumber, the entire portion was so small that all of it was able to fit into 3”x5” dish from Alaska’s short-lived tapas style food service experiment of two years ago.

Unfortunately, a fair amount of cloud cover obscured most of the rugged coastline between Juneau and Anchorage but the flight was otherwise smooth and the service good. I washed down my hummus with a glass of Jack Daniels accompanied by the last of a sleeve of Blue Diamond smoked almonds that I discovered in the bottom of my daypack. Who knows how long they’d been down there, but the almonds were still crunchy and proved a tasty complement to the bland hummus and the fiery Jack Daniels.

In Anchorage I made my way to the Alaska Lounge located at the top of the C Concourse. I have been a member in good standing of the Alaska Lounge (ex-Alaska Boardroom) since the late 1980s when I relocated permanently from Colorado to Alaska. Joining the Boardroom also replaced my longstanding membership in Western Airlines’ Horizon Club which was merged into Delta’s Crown Room (now Sky Club) as a result of the 1986 merger between Delta and Western. These days the Alaska Lounge is the only airline club available in Anchorage and although I miss the spaciousness of the Horizon Club as well as the big bowls of premium mixed nuts it always had available, Alaska’s smaller lounge provides a nice variety of drinks, soups, salads and other snack items. It also provides an excellent Wi-Fi connection which helped pass the time during my three hour layover in Anchorage.

I was extremely fortunate to get upgraded on the final leg up to Fairbanks, something I wasn’t aware of until I presented my boarding pass at the entrance to the Jetway. I hadn’t even bothered to check beforehand primarily because Alaska does a brisk business between its two largest cities and I should imagine the 7:43pm departure is a popular one for business travelers. Perhaps a meeting or a dinner engagement ran a bit longer than planned for someone this evening. Whatever the reason, I was now seated in 1A.

I saluted my good fortune with a glass of Woodford Reserve on the rocks, and then watched with anticipation as we descended over the Tanana basin, made a wide turn over the north side of town and lined up for final on runway 20R. It was a beautiful evening of the type only Alaska can offer at this time of day during this time of year, and I was fortunate to have my camera ready.

A pretty evening descent into Fairbanks

Touchdown was light as a feather and, following a loud and lengthy deployment of the thrust reversers, we taxied briskly into gate 1 and parked alongside an attractive red and black DHC-8-100 belonging to Ravn, Alaska’s largest intra-state carrier.

My neighbor Steve met me at the airport and we drove out to Ester for cold beers and cook-it-yourself burgers at the Golden Eagle Saloon. After 35000 miles of quality travel experience via road, rail, air and sea, it sure was good to be home.

* * * _  _ * * *

After having submitted more than seventy of these reports over the past seventeen years, I must admit that they’re becoming a bit more difficult to write in a timely fashion being as I’ve done it all so many times before. I don’t know how many more trip reports of this breadth and scope I have left in me but I do know that were it not for your continuing readership and enthusiastic endorsement of my past reports I probably wouldn’t have written more than a handful of them in the first place.

As such, I’d like to offer a multitude of thanks to all of you who’ve ever taken the time to read one of my trip reports and special thanks to all of you who’ve taken the time to read this report, be it in part or in full. I recognize that it takes a fair investment in time to read through 55000+ words of text as opposed to flipping through most photo reports, so to all of you who felt this report worthy of your time invested, I offer my heartfelt thanks for your readership.

As ever, I’m always happy to entertain any questions, comments or catcalls - though given my convoluted schedule in the coming weeks, response time may not always be as expeditious as I’d like.

Cheers from my desk here on a beautiful evening at Latitude 65°N.

Cheers from a beautiful evening at Latitude 65°N
gba, deovrat, standch and 4 others like this.
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Oct 8, 18, 3:09 am
Join Date: Aug 2004
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Thanks for the Trip Report and pictures.
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