Trip Reports

Destination: Sydney, Australia

Sydney is one of those cities I will always suggest people use as they first start out with international travel. It would probably be a close second to London, only because for US citizens, the flights to Australia is quite a long one. If you do brave the 15+ hour flight, then the rewards are well worth it. Australia quickly became a favorite of mine.

Sydney in particular is a stand out for the great food, easy transportation, and lots to do. My trip and likely most first time visitors, will start around Sydney Harbor and Circular Quay. Circular Quay is the major stop for each ferry, a large subway stop, and a big waterfront dining area. I ate at least 1 meal a day at Sydney Harbor and maybe repeated 1 place. Lots and lots of options available.

From Circular Quay, you can grab a ferry over to the Sydney Zoo on the other side of the harbor. There you will grab a bus to the top of the hill and descend through the zoo all the way back to the ferry stop. I've been to quite a few zoos and this was definitely up there in the top ones I've ever visited. The entire walk is full of fun creatures, some very native and some not as much. The entire time, your walk is backdropped by the city across the harbor and the Sydney Opera house which can be seen for almost everywhere in the zoo. 

Back in downtown Sydney, there is no end to activities and sights to see. From Sydney Harbor Bridge, to the iconic Opera House, the waterfront is the logical place to start. Moving inland from there, museums abound and a bustling city emerges. Museum of Natural History to the Science and Technology museum, I found the educational scenes to be good, but not great. As for the art museum, this was quite well done with many famous painters and lots of great art to check out. The art museum is situated in the large downtown park, and is fairly easy to get to.

Looking for an evening dinner location? At the top of the Sydney Tower is a rotating observation deck and a very nice, though slightly expensive, restaurant. Over a meal, you'll get the chance to see the entire city as you slowly rotate around the tower. I found the food to be a little underwhelming for the very high price, but the drinks on offer were very good. It is certainly worth a visit for the amazing view.

While I barely scratched the surface of Sydney, it is a place that certainly warrants a return flight at some point. Award flights tend to be pretty sparse to Australia, but even on a paid ticket the destination is well worth it. Think about making it a top destination on your future travel list.

Destination: Independence Park, Philadelphia

Now we are starting to move toward summer and in center city Philadelphia, tourism is starting to pick back up. I live in Philadelphia, and see the crowds starting to build downtown, especially around the tourist sites. Independence Park is a major stop for anyone coming into the city, and with good reason, this is the site where the US was born as we know it.

Independence Park is a National Park sitting in and on the edge of the Old City district of center city Philadelphia. I’ve always seen it as a fairly unique National Park since it is in the middle of a city. Spanning 6 city blocks or more, the whole area is a beautiful green oasis in the middle of a bustling concrete jungle. The whole area runs about 4 blocks North to South and 3 blocks West to East. The three northernmost segments are wide open areas, a convention area at the North, in the middle blocks are two buildings dedicated to historical information and the housing of the original Liberty Bell, crack and all.

During the summer, with more tourists, the Liberty Bell building can form a long line. Don’t be discouraged by this, the line forms due to a security checkpoint and things tend to move quite quickly. Entering the building give a historic run through. Walking the length of the building through many displays will culminate in a up close visit with the Liberty Bell. If you aren’t interesting in getting close, the bell can be viewed from a distance away outside the building where a large wall of glass shows the bell to the outside world. Don’t expect to see the crack though, unless you venture inside.

Across the street from the Liberty Bell is the original building where it once hung. This is where the US Declaration of Independence was signed almost 250 years ago. The building is open to guided tours only, no unattended walkthroughs are allowed. Wait your turn on the northeast corner of the block where groups are let in on a first come first serve basis.

The grounds continue on to the East from there another 2 blocks. Beyond that a new museum is under construction that will display information and articles from and about the American Revolution. On 2nd street is City Tavern, admittedly a bit expensive, but a fun place to experience a restaurant housed in an old building. Waiters come through in period appropriate clothing.

To the East of the Park is the Old City area. All of the buildings here tend to follow a historic building technique and many other historic landmarks can be found dotting the area. Philadelphia is well known for the great restaurants and food, so be sure to take advantage of all that is to offer in Old City. Market is the main street running through the city and there are great restaurants all up and down the road in Old City. If you are looking for a cheese steak as many visitors to Philly are, check out Sonny’s. Many people in the city will argue that going way down south to some of the well known places will result in better cheese steaks, but I’ve found the big names to be more tourist trappy and less good food. While I no longer partake in the steak, Sonny’s was a favorite of mine when i did.

Philadelphia has been my home for the last 2-3 years and that is coming to an end soon, so I’d like to show everyone here a bit of Philly before I go. Philly has won me over as a great city to live and visit, now if I could just avoid rush hour traffic, it’d make life virtually perfect.

Destination: Aix En Provence, France

Three to four times a year, I make a work pilgrimage to Southern France. Located in the hills south of the alps is where we are building a new plant. Almost every time that we make this trip, the preferred place to stay during our time in France is the town of Aix-En-Provence, well known for the landscapes and focal point for many impressionist painters.

Today Aix En Provence is the known as the judiciary city of this area of Southern France, as well as a major arts town for college bound students. Aix forms an interesting mix of a fairly young population, old architecture, and a travel destination for many foreign travelers. Since I do spend a lot of time in Aix, I've gotten to know it fairly well over the past few years.

If you goal is to purely visit Aix, then you'll want to get there by one of two methods. France's high speed train system, the TGV, stops about 10-15 minutes outside of the city at the Aix TGV Station. Your other option is to make use of the Marseille Airport, which is my preferred option. Both the airport and the TGV station are serviced by the same bus. Extra buses run to the TGV station, but you can easily grab a bus from the airport every 30 minutes. If you plan to visit more than just Aix, you may want to rent a car. In this case, I suggest going to the airport where rental cars are available.

Once arriving in Aix by bus or other means, you'll want to get settled in. The city boasts many options for lodging. Personally my preferred place to stay is the Renaissance Hotel, this is pretty much the only major hotel chain located in the center of the city. Other options exist outside the city for major chains, but are rarely have easy access to downtown where most people would like to explore. If you don't mind giving up your hotel points, there are some small boutique hotels to try.

I often stay at the Hotel Rotonde when my first option is too expensive. Hotel Rotonde is small, and wouldn't be a good option normally in my opinion. The problems start with cleaning staff who rarely are consistent on the way rooms are cleaned, or even if you get soap refilled. Secondly, and my most major grip, is that you are required to leave your room key with the front desk... though they ask for no identification when you return and ask for the key... this doesn't make me exactly feel safe about my belongings in the room. One the positive side, there is a breakfast setup every morning in the lobby.

If any of this doesn't sound appealing, there is another option in the Hotel des Augustines, which is a converted chapel. Personally I have not stayed here, but I will consider it on my next visit since the Rotonde has not been a good experience lately. Hotel des Augustines is a place many of my co-workers stay at and with the old stonework throughout the building, it is supposed to be a beautiful place to stay inside and out. 

Downtown Aix is beautiful, starting at the main roundabout at the center of the city. A huge fountain graces the center of the roundabout, while busy this fountain looks amazing during the winter when water is replaced by Christmas lights mimicking the flow of water.

Surrounding the fountain is a plethora of restaurants. The French are well known for their food, and with good reason, it is incredible. Almost any option is offered in this area. Explore the side streets and alleys here as they continue on like a labyrinth, continuing off in all directions, but still full of shops and restaurants. From hamburgers in crepes, to tapas, to pizza, just walk in any direction to find amazing food.

On the east side of the foutain is a street called Cours Mirabeau. During the evening hours, be sure to get there before 7pm though, the streets are lined with wooden booths where vendors sell anything from incredibly detailed chocolate, to Russian nesting dolls. This is where you can buy from local vendors, and some very unique items. Really this is the place to go at least one night to see all of the wares.

The 7pm thing has held very true over the many times I've visited. Now I tend to go around the winter, so I'm not sure if the longer days bring later hours, but almost every store is closed by 7pm. Grocery stores stay open a little later, but make sure you check the hours since these hours are nothing like what you would see in the United States. Restaurants are also open late as French dining is filled with conversation and often stretches more than 2 hours.

Aix promises an experience for any visitng southern France. Alps to the north, museums in the city, old arcitechture and amazing back street alleys. If you are thinking about southern France, make Aix a stop on the trip, or even the place you come back to every night. 

Food Review: American Business Class 787-8 PEK to ORD

Airline: American Airlines

Flight: 186

Route: PEK - ORD

Aircraft: Boeing 787-8

Class: Business

Booking my trip to Beijing, I had taken advantage of a very cheap fare out of Chicago, only $500 for a round trip to the other side of the world. One issue with that is the length of the flight. Chicago to Beijing is a route that takes you over the North Pole and requires about 13 hours in the air. If I can at all help it, I want to stay out of economy class as much as possible these days, it gets more and more uncomfortable every time a new seat configuration is added. Business class is quite the opposite, so while business class was full on the way to China, the return trip had some open seats available, so I took advantage. Using some points and a little bit of cash, I upgraded to an open business class seat.

One minor issue here is that you only upgrade at the airport if seats are open. You can upgrade prior if there are upgrade seats open, but they were already taken on this flight, so I had to wait until at the airport to see if any seats were open, or if someone was upgraded ahead of me. Luckily I got the seat, but waiting until the last minute means you don’t get your requested meal if you ordered prior to the flight.

Boarding the aircraft, I was in seat 1H in the middle section, I’d prefer to have the seat next to a window, but I wasn’t going to complain about getting a lie flat seat for a 12 hours return flight. When the flight attendants came around with a menu, my flight attendant mentioned they had boarded a special meal for me… awesome, they had just told me they hadn’t back in the terminal. This was actually a half truth, they boarded 1 main dish that was vegetarian, the rest I was on my own. This sucks if you are vegan, but I do sometimes go off script for these reviews, so it was fine seeing as they always seem to carry a vegetarian option anyways.

The menu read as follows:

Before takeoff we were offered drinks. I chose the champagne here, though I’m not a big drinker, and this was the only alcohol I had the entire flight. The pre-departure champagne wasn’t too bad. Something I wouldn’t mind normally drinking at an event or celebration of some sort.

Shortly after, we all took our seats, made a really fast taxi to the runway and took to the skies. We climbed out of Beijing and made our way to cruising altitude. The ride was a bit bumpy, but soon we were cruising along with service starting.

Starters were brought out that consisted of a salad, bread and duck spring rolls. This is where I first got a feel that they didn’t actually board full vegetarian meals. I immediately had her take the duck back, and stuck with the salad. Dressing on the salad was between a honey mustard and something the flight attendant couldn’t actually figure out. Not a great sign when your server doesn’t know what's being offered. I stuck with the honey mustard and it was actually very good, along with a well made salad. As always, the pretzel bread was fantastic.

Next up was the main course. This was the only thing that was boarded as a vegetarian special meal. Not exactly sure why this option was offered and nothing else on the entire plane unless it was left from a previous business class passenger on the outbound flight since it seems they don’t cater much out of Beijing anymore due to very poor past experience with their catering services.

Plated was a pasta dish… *groan* the vegetarian go to for airlines. It was well cooked but had the most confusing sauce I’d ever seen. What was expected was a tomato based sauce, it sort of was, but it seems like they were attempting an Asian flair. Tasting the sauce immediately told you it wasn’t exactly tomato, it was more of a sweet and sour sauce, maybe, sort of… I really don’t know what it was, just that it was weird and I would never have ordered it on the ground, nor would I want to. Not that it was terrible, but it certainly wasn’t good. Food purgatory if you will.

Last up was dessert, I grabbed the berry tart, seemed to be the least dairy based option. Personally, and I know this is subjective, I like berries to be tart, or sour. Overly sweetened berries ruins a dessert for me, and this berry tart was a little too sweet. The sugar content didn’t completely ruin the food, but it was riding the border for me.

After this, the table was cleared and I settled in for some sleep, a lie flat seat can never be overstated, this is all I want for my flights anymore. Soon after lying back, I fell asleep… for many hours. When I awoke, all I heard was the plates of other passengers being cleaned up, I guess I missed the mid flight snack. Flight attendants handle midflight or even pre-arrival meals very differently depending on who you get. This flight attendant never woke anyone for anything. My preference is for an attendant to ask if I want to be awoken, as I review food and want to try what is offered so I can pass that on to everyone here. Needless to say, I was mixed on my feelings here, as I wanted to try some of it… but there were no fully vegetarian options available, so I would have had to have them custom make it without meat for this one. Maybe better I slept through this meal. Back to sleep I went.

Waking just before landing, the flight attendant asked what I wanted to try. The only option that was vegetarian was the quiche. Now no matter if I am giving in from vegan a little to review these meals or not, I still never want eggs, never have been a big fan, still don’t want them now that I don’t eat meat.

Only option is the only option though and I tried it. Actually a very, very good quiche, fairly close to some of the best I’ve had. This is quite impressive seeing as this may have been catered in Chicago, flown to Beijing, sat overnight and flown all the way back to Chicago before it was ever served and it still was on point. Well done American, good show.

Alongside the quiche was some grilled squash, potatoes, and a side salad. All of these were pretty great, though I always find a salad for breakfast weird. Last up was dessert, a sour cream ginger cake. I think I’ve mentioned how I’m not a huge ginger fan if it is prominent. Personally, ginger is a subtle added ingredient, not in your face and this cake was dense and in your face with ginger. Once again, not terrible, but I would have preferred something else.

Soon we were on the ground and performing a normal Chicago taxi fo roughly the same length as your flight time. Overall the food was actually pretty good with the exception of the main course for the first meal. Other than that misstep, the food was very well done. Nicely put together American, as a vegetarian meal goes it was something I actually quite enjoyed.

Destination: Forbidden City, China

Getting to the Forbidden City is fairly straight forward if you use the public transit system. Tian'anmen square is right as you exit at either the east or west stop on Line 1 of the Beijing subway system. One thing you have to keep in mind is that China is big, population wise. Many people come to visit not only Tian'anmen, but also the Forbidden City and surrounding areas. Most of them are not tourists from other countries.

People are not very used to westerners in many cases, I was approached no less than 4 times, and I've heard many stories of getting swarmed by those wanted to take photos. In my case there were no requests for photos, but lots of people trying to practice their English with me. I even sat down for tea with an English teacher, and it was facinating to get to talk to a local person, even if it was a little odd and uncomfortable for an introvert like myself at times.


Tian'anmen Square

Tian'anmen Square

Tian'anmen square and the Forbidden City are connected through an underground tunnel. Getting into either area requires passing through security. This is where I warn you that almost every place you go requires passing through security in China. Even getting into the subway requires an x-ray scan of your belongings, and a quick trip through a metal detector. My last minute decision to carry a small shoulder bag with me was a great choice. This made clearing security quick and painless as my stuff was in the bag and through the scanner while I had removed all metal from myself in advance of entering.  

Tian'anmen and Forbidden City complex requires not only security screening, but also an ID. Beijing is a city you visit with your passport on you. I'm very used to placing my passport in a safe in the hotel as soon as I arrive and not taking it out until I'm ready to fly out. Personally, carrying around my passport is not the most safe thing I think I could do. I even like to minimize the credit cards I carry on me at any time. If I know a place fairly well, I'll break from the habit and bring my wallet with me, but the passport always stays in the safe. This was a mistake in China, while I was allowed through the security checkpoint with my drivers license, I would advise against this, and I would not do it again. Many attractions require ID and it is prudent to carry your passport in Beijing. 

Entering into the side gardens of the Forbidden City actually launch you from the busy lines around Chairman Mao and those continuing into the main area of the city, into the peaceful surrounding areas. I highly suggest entering through the side gardens if you can figure out where to go, it isn't straight forward. A Chinese art student showed me the way and gave me a quick tour of their art exibit prior to entering. I was able to purchase an art piece from him for a reasonible price that was one of a kind and I knew my fiance would love.

Entering the side gardens of the city shows the amazing architecture of the period in which everything was built. Cypress gardens are the first thing you walk through and many attractions have seperate english versions of the informational signs around the area. There is even a special cypress tree which was the first one planted on the temple grounds, by the emperor at the time

Continuing on to the next area, your first introduction to the city buildings comes up and you are launched back in time. A small waterway shows up and it's very striking how many trees and plants show up not only in the city grounds, but throughout the city of Beijing.

Buildings in Forbidden City

Buildings in Forbidden City

Walking through to the next area shows a large building with a huge courtyard of stone pavers. Outlying buildings surround the courtyard and make a beautiful scene. Due to the low foot traffic in this section of the grounds, it is almost peaceful and a perfect opportunity for wedding photos. During my walkthrough, I saw at least 5 different wedding photographers with brides and grooms taking their photos.

Open square in the Forbidden City

Open square in the Forbidden City

Amazing Chinese Stonework

Amazing Chinese Stonework

On to the next area bring you out at the top of the South East gardens. Greeted by a paved walkway, more cypress trees and a huge moat of sorts. Boarding the other side of the moat, is a huge wall guarding the main part of the city. From here you can exit the gardens and secure area before walking into the main area. I actually chose to walk along the water front and come in from the east side. Interestingly this didn't happen, I made it almost to the east entrance when I was approached by the aforementioned english teacher from Xi'an. She wanted to practice her english on me, and we ended up sitting down to some tea and making new friends.  It was an unexpected encounter, but experiences are what I was in China for, so getting to know someone from the country was a fun experience... though the private karaoke session was a little much for me and I went on my way. 

Walls of the central part of the Forbidden City

Walls of the central part of the Forbidden City

While I didn't finish the central part of the Forbidden City, I will return at some point and continue my tour. Sometimes travel takes you in unexpected directions, but an adventure is always worth a detour or two.