How to Book a Flight to Tahiti with American Miles

American AAdvantage miles are some of the easiest mileage currencies to accrue.  On the other hand, redeeming them can be challenging at times.  One of the places that may be pretty challenging to use AA miles for if you don’t know how is to get to one of the most beautiful places on Earth — the honeymoon and bucket list mecca of Bora Bora.

You’ve seen them.  The lavish resorts featuring elaborate overwater bungalows that are set on top of crystal clear water in a sheer tropical paradise.  Many of these properties are located in Bora Bora or Moorea — both Islands in the Society Islands of French Polynesia, along with Tahiti.  In order to get to these island paradises, one must first fly into Papeete (PPT) — the only international airport in Tahiti.

Getting to Papeete from North America is pretty straightforward when using American miles.  There are exactly two options:  Hawaiian Airlines and Air Tahiti Nui — both partners with American, and both are great partners that allow you to fly to Tahiti with American miles. Continue Reading →

Review: United Global First Class Sydney to San Francisco

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

We awoke at the Park Hyatt Melbourne after our last night in Australia, and grabbed a cab to the Melbourne Airport.  We were to pick up our United ticket back to the States in Sydney, so we booked a one-way flight from Melbourne to Sydney on Qantas.  In order to avoid a misconnection, we allowed ourselves a 3.5 hour layover in Sydney, which ultimately proved to be plenty of time.  After having breakfast in the Melbourne Airport food court, we proceeded to the gate to ride our Qantas B767-300 for a short, hour-long flight to Sydney to start out our long, 28-hour day of traveling.

Our flights home:  MEL-SYD-SFO-DCA / SFO-CLT-TPA

Our flights home: MEL-SYD-SFO-DCA / SFO-CLT-TPA

We were luckily able to snag a couple bulkhead seats, so this flight wasn’t bad at all — chalk it up as another good experience with Qantas, similar to what we experienced a few days before.

Our B767-300 for MEL-SYD

Our B767-300 for MEL-SYD

We arrived in the domestic terminal 2 at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport, but we needed to get to Terminal 1 for our international flight on United to San Francisco.  Qantas operates a shuttle between the domestic and international terminals for their international connecting passengers, but they allowed us to access the shuttle with our Untied boarding passes, so that was nice.

After driving the tarmac past some behemoth airplanes, the shuttle dropped us off at a point where we had to go either to the transfer security checkpoint, or to the check-in counters.  We went to the United check-in counters, but they were not yet open as it was a tad more than three hours before our scheduled flight time.  Though we had boarding passes on our phone, we wanted paper boarding passes and lounge passes, so we waited about five minutes before we saw a United representative.  Though they weren’t open yet, she saw were Global First Class passengers, so she went ahead and produced our boarding passes and sent us on our way.

Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge

After going through security, we proceeded to the Star Alliance section of the terminal.  Though we had lounge invites for the Air New Zealand Lounge, I figured we’d give the Singapore First Class Lounge a shot since according to the Star Alliance Lounge Access Policy, we should be granted access.

We were, in fact, granted access to the Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge without issue, and were informed that it had just undergone a refurbishment.  It was completely empty when we arrived, so we took two seats overlooking the tarmac and several gates.

The View from our perch in the Singapore First Class Lounge at Sydney

The View from our perch in the Singapore First Class Lounge at Sydney

We enjoyed a few drinks, and  a fantastic Thai Red Coconut curry lunch in the lounge.  We really enjoyed this lounge, and appreciated the personal service we had during our two hours there, as there was a waiter who kept our drinks and plates full.  Though there were ultimately a few other patrons in the lounge, we felt like we had the place to ourselves, making for a very relaxing layover prior to our loooooong flight back to the States.  Oh, and the bathroom had one of the more ridiculous signs I’ve seen…

Best signage ever in the Singapore First Class Lounge Restroom!

Best signage ever in the Singapore First Class Lounge Restroom!  Thanks for the advice, SQ!

We left the lounge a little after the published boarding time only to find hoards of people by the gate.  Shockingly, boarding had yet to commence, so we popped up into the Air  New Zealand Business Lounge.  And what an insane asylum it was!  This was a massive lounge that was quite crowded and very loud.  After checking it out for ten minutes, we’d seen enough — we were so glad that we opted to spend time in the Singapore First Class Lounge instead (though I loved the hot dog cart in the ANZ lounge)!  By the time we got back to the gate, boarding was well underway.

United Airlines (UA) 870
Sydney (SYD) – San Francisco (SFO)
Aircraft:  Boeing 747-400
Seat:  1A (Global First Class)
Thursday, January 9
4:20PM – 10:50AM
Duration:  13:30

We boarded through door 1L, hung a left, and were seated in the same two seats that we had on our outbound flights a few weeks prior:  seats 1A and 1K in Global First Class on board a United B747-400.  Again, I can’t say enough about the awesomeness of these seats.  They’re somewhat private, they have a ton of storage, there is no foot traffic, and they’re very spacious.  Overall, it’s an extremely comfortable seat in which to spend 13+ hours, and is great for pairs traveling together.

Seat 1A in Global First Class on the United B747-400

Seat 1A in Global First Class on the United B747-400

Plenty of Room in 1A

Plenty of Room in 1A

Once we took our seats, the friendly flight attendant fulfilled our pre-departure beverage requests and brought us our amenity kits, which I really do like.  We pushed back pretty close to on-time and taxied out past another United B747-400 that was running an extra segment due to a cancellation the day before.  We taxied all the way to the end of runway 34R and took an extra-long take-off roll before turning north.  The view of Sydney out my window was fantastic!

Dinner service began about 30 minutes after takeoff.  The appetizer was some sort of a pork won-ton, and was actually quite good.  The soup was a cream of asparagus, and it was probably the highlight of the dinner.  The salad was pretty standard — fresh and tasty.  Due to both of our awful entrees on our outbound flight LAX-SYD, I decided to play it safe and order the pasta.  The Pasta dish on this flight was a butternut squash ravioli.  It was relatively tasty, though dominated by the sauce.  The traditional ice cream sundae topped off this slightly improved meal.

At the end of the day, the dinner service was a bit better than our outbound flight, but it still just doesn’t compete with other airlines’ food in international first class that I’ve experienced.  You shouldn’t have to go with a “safe” choice when flying international first class.

After dinner, I had a few more drinks and watched another movie.  I started getting sleepy, so I went to change into something more comfortable.  When I came back to my seat, it was made into a bed.  Once again, I slept wonderfully on this flight.  I find the Global First Class seat on United to be great for sleeping, as it provides plenty of room for even me to stretch out (I’m 6’4″)!!

Dusk somewhere over the Pacific

Dusk somewhere over the Pacific

Seat 1A in United Global First Class in bed mode, and made up with a blue duvet

Seat 1A in United Global First Class in bed mode, and topped with a blue mattress pad

I awoke about 90 minutes outside of San Francisco and the flight attendant promptly brought me the breakfast menu.  I elected to try the eggs with hollandaise sauce.  The whole breakfast was served on one tray — the fruit, yogurt, croissant, eggs, and sausage.  Everything was pretty decent, though the eggs tasted like they were cooked 12 hours prior — and they looked like plastic.  It still wasn’t a terrible breakfast, though I do prefer my eggs to be freshly cooked, and these were most certainly not.

Big breakfast -- and interesting eggs!

Big breakfast — and interesting eggs!

Service throughout this flight was perfectly adequate, but nothing overly memorable or special.  The flight attendants were friendly enough and provided solid service.  When I needed something, it was taken care of quickly, but not necessarily with a smile.  Though it was good, I found the service to be better on our outbound flight from LAX.

Upon landing, I breezed through Global Entry and took a quick shower in the United Arrivals Lounge at SFO — a most welcome freshen-up after the long day of flying.  After that, my dad and I parted ways as he went off to catch his US Airways first class flight back home to Tampa via Charlotte and I went to catch my non-stop United flight to Washington-National airport in first class.

This was a non-eventful, domestic first class flight, and I slept through the entire flight!  I arrived in DC ahead of schedule, ending one of the most memorable few weeks of my life — and a trip with my dad that I’ll remember forever.

Bottom Line

United’s Global First Class is a very comfortable way to get to and from Australia.  The catering is what sets this product from being anywhere near first-rate in the industry.  Catering would qualify as okay to decent for business class, but it’s certainly not first class catering.  At the end of the day, the thing I value the most in a first class seat is the comfort of the seat, and I really do find this seat truly comfortable.  Though it lacks the privacy of some other airlines’ first class seats, it’s certainly a good way to cross the Pacific.

How I booked it…

As mentioned in my previous post, I booked this trip for my dad and I using United miles.  United charged 80,000 miles each way (160,000 miles round trip) for each of us.  Note:  As of March 2014, United no longer flies the Boeing 747-400 on its Australia routes.  Instead, the airline operates a three-class Boeing 777-200 on both its LAX-SYD and SFO-SYD routes.  The B777-200 has four fewer Global First Class seats than the B747-400, so I expect it to be somewhat more difficult to find first class award space on United flights to Australia.  Starting in late 2014, United will operate their brand new, two-class B787-9 Dreamliner on nonstop flights from LAX to Melbourne.  This flight will only offer BusinessFirst class, similar to what I experienced on my flights on the B787-8 Dreamliner from Denver to Tokyo SeattleSeattle to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Denver.

Two Days in Melbourne and the Park Hyatt Melbourne

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea


Park Hyatt Melbourne

We arrived quite late into Melbourne after a short flight from Sydney and quickly found the taxi queue.  From there, we hailed a cab to our hotel — the Park Hyatt Melbourne.  I booked the Park Hyatt with points for two nights, and with cash for the third night.  We chose the Park Hyatt over the Grand Hyatt solely based on reputation.  Up to that point, some of my best stays ever had been at Park Hyatt properties in Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich — so I was pretty sold on trying the Park Hyatt Melbourne even though the Grand Hyatt probably had a more ideal location in downtown Melbourne.

By the time we got to the hotel, it was a ghost town.  The Park Hyatt features a beautiful lobby, but we didn’t spend too much time in the hotel facilities.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

After waiting a few minutes for a check-in agent (like I said, it was a ghost time at 1am), we finally were given our keys to a room on the 11th floor.  We had a standard, Park Twin room.  The finishings in the room were extremely nice and high quality.  There was a generous walk-in closet and a very large bathroom.  The beds were very comfortable, and the room featured most of the creature comforts that I’d grown accustomed to staying at Park Hyatts.  The major drawback for me was the very small size of the television in the room — and this ended up being a big deal for me — I’ll explain later.  Though it was a perfectly nice room and property in general, I just didn’t possess the “wow” factor that I’ve felt at other Park Hyatt properties.  I was overall pretty happy with the property, but if I had to do it again, I’d probably choose the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne due to its more convenient location to downtown Melbourne.

We were pretty exhausted when we got to the hotel room, so we promptly went to bed.  The first full day in Melbourne featured absolutely perfect weather — it would have been a wonderful day to explore the city.  However, my attention was diverted elsewhere.

2014 BCS National Championship Game – Auburn vs Florida State

That day, I had zero interest in touring Melbourne because my alma-mater Auburn Tigers were set to play in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida State that afternoon around noon local time (around 6pm local time at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California).  Since I’m a huge college football fan (I’d already been to four Auburn games that season in person), and this was essentially College Football’s Super Bowl, it was the only thing I really cared about that day.  As such, my nerves were out of control.  Thankfully, my dad is extremely familiar with my Auburn football “problem,” so he was a good sport about it and never once complained that we’d be spending the majority of the day in Melbourne watching a football game on TV in our hotel room.  He was obviously aware of the game, and much preferred watching it with me in Australia over me bailing on him to go to the game (Yes, I briefly considered flying directly back to LAX after our dive drip to attend the game in person at the Rose Bowl).

We grabbed breakfast and took a stroll around downtown Melbourne before heading into a grocery store to load up on some tailgating supplies — snacks and drinks for the room.   As kickoff neared, we headed back to the Park Hyatt, and I setup shop on the corner of the bed ready to watch our very small television as my Auburn Tigers played for the National Championship.  Like I said, I was a nervous wreck during the game.  I didn’t move from my spot on the bed for four hours.  I didn’t eat or drink a thing because my stomach was in knots.

It's Gameday!  War Damn Eagle!  Notice the small TV

It’s Gameday! War Damn Eagle! Notice the small TV

Yes, I take my Auburn football very seriously.  Irrational?  Maybe.  Am I sorry about it?  Absolutely not.

Despite starting out in complete control of the game, Auburn eventually succumbed to a last-minute Florida State touchdown, and lost the game 34-31.  I was pretty silent for about thirty minutes after the game, as I was pretty heartbroken.

Chinatown and Dinner at Hutong Dumpling Bar

Eventually, my dad suggested we go get food, so I agreed.  We decided to take a recommendation from Trip Advisor and tried a Dim Sum place in Chinatown called Hutong Dumpling Bar. The meal was excellent – I mean, it was very, very good.  I certainly recommend this place.  After dinner, we walked around the Chinatown area and then headed back to the hotel for the evening.  By this point in the trip, we were pretty exhausted, so we had no problem with being in somewhat early.

I’M FREE Walking Tour

We really, really enjoyed our free walking tour in Sydney, and thought that it would similarly be a fantastic way to get an overview of Melbourne in the limited time that we had.  The same company, I’m Free Walking Tours offers walking tours in Melbourne, so naturally we decided on that.  We met the group at 10:30am in front of the State Library of Victoria.  Once again, there was a large group ready to take the tour on another perfect weather day in Melbourne (about 76 degrees and sunny).  Like Sydney, the tour was excellent.  We walked from the State Library of Victoria to the Old Melbourne Gaol to the Royal Exhibition Center.  We then proceeded back  through Chinatown and through the many laneways of Melbourne, replete with urban art (basically classy graffiti).  We then walked through Burke Street Mall, and through the galleries to Flinders Street Station and Federation Square.  We crossed the Yarra River and ended the tour in the shadows of Eurkea Tower after about three hours of some awesome sites and wonderfully informative commentary.  The tour ended by the Yarra River with a great, panoramic view of the Melbourne skyline, so we took that in for a bit before deciding that we needed some food.

We backtracked to some of the really cool galleries that we’d walked through.   These narrow passages are located all over the downtown Melbourne area, and are lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops.  We settled on a burger joint called Huxtaburger in the CBD, and it ended up being the best burger we had on the trip (yes — we had a lot of burgers).


Huxtaburger deliciousness

After this late lunch, we were pretty beat from walking around, so we hoofed it back to the hotel for some rest and to pack for our trip home.

That evening, we took a suggestion from our walking tour guide and tried another noodle / dim sum place called Camy Shanghai Dumpling House.  Though it was much, much cheaper than our dinner the previous night, it was pretty disappointing — especially compared to our excellent meal we had the night before.  We strolled around downtown one last time before retiring to the Park Hyatt for our last night’s sleep in Australia.


Review: Qantas Economy and Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

After disembarking the Spirit of Freedom after four insanely great days of diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, we accompanied several of our fellow passengers to a bar in Cairns for lunch and a few drinks.  Many of the crew members of the boat met us there for a great summer afternoon.  When it was time to head to the airport, several of us split a cab for the short ride.  I’d booked my dad in business class for these two segments, while I bit the bullet and agreed to ride back in economy.  Upon check-in, the very nice Qantas check-in agent proactively changed my seat assignment to an exit-row aisle seat when she saw how tall I was – this was a very nice touch and a great way to start the trip down to Melbourne.

After passing through security, we spent some time in the Qantas Club before it was time to board for the flight.  Despite Cairns being a regional airport at best, the club was extremely well equipped and certainly much nicer than pretty much any other domestic lounge run by a carrier in the US.

Cairns to Melbourne via Sydney on Qantas

Cairns to Melbourne via Sydney on Qantas

Qantas (QF) 927
Cairns (CNS) – Sydney (SYD)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  14D (Economy Class)
Monday, January 6
4:15 PM – 8:15PM
Duration:  3:00

My dad took his seat in 1D in business class, and I kept going back to the second row of exit row seats.  The plane was a fairly new B737-800 with nice, leather seats and an in-seat IFE system.  Since I did have an exit row seat, I had tons of legroom — this was much appreciated, though even the standard seat pitch didn’t look all that bad.

Plenty of legroom in the Exit Row!

Plenty of legroom in the Exit Row!

Nice in-seat IFE on this Qantas B737-800

Nice in-seat IFE on this Qantas B737-800

Service on the flight was pretty fantastic.  We had a light snack on-board that consisted of a decent sandwich — the flight attendant from business class even brought me back some ice cream and a drink from business class at the request of my dad — a nice touch for sure.  I watched a movie on the IFE, and before I knew it, we were on final approach into Sydney.  This was one of the easier flights in economy that I’d experienced, and it was certainly a better experience than my flights on Virgin Australia a few days before.

We were scheduled to have a couple of hours in Sydney before our connecting flight departed for Melbourne, but it was delayed for about an hour.  No worries — we just headed to the Qantas Club in the domestic terminal to kill some time.  Once again, it was very well-appointed and provided a wonderful respite from the somewhat vacant domestic terminal at that hour.

Boarding for the short hop over to Melbourne began about 45 minutes behind schedule as the flight was awaiting a connecting crew.

Qantas (QF) 497
Sydney (SYD) – Melbourne (MEL)
Aircraft:  Boeing 767-300
Seat:  4E (Business Class)
Monday, January 6
10:05 PM – 11:40PM
Duration:  1:35

Since my dad enjoyed business class on the much longer between Cairns and Sydney, he offered  his seat in business class to me for the shorter flight to Melbourne.  I gladly accepted his offer, and was pretty thrilled to ride up front on this domestic version of the Qantas B767-300.   The domestic version of this aircraft is situated with 30 business class seats — five rows of six seats.  It’s a regional business class setup, with a larger, reclining seat.  It wasn’t up to the standards of the regional business class product I flew last year on Cathay Pacific, but the seat was certainly better than your typical domestic first class seat in the States.  Though I didn’t use it, the IFE on the B767-300 was via pre-loaded iPads.  Each of these IFE systems were loaded with a ton of entertainment — movies, TV shows, music, etc.  I do prefer in-seat IFE systems, but this system wasn’t that bad — especially considering there was a slot in the seat where you can hang the iPad, making it a de-facto seat-back IFE system.

The empty Business Class cabin on the Qantas B767-300

The empty Business Class cabin on the Qantas B767-300

The IFE system on the Qantas B767-300 -- an iPad

The IFE system on the Qantas B767-300 — an iPad

The business class cabin on this evening flight was practically empty.  In fact, there was only one other passenger in the business class cabin with me, and that person was seated up in row 1.   There were two flight attendants working the business class cabin, so it came as no surprise that the service on-board was pretty phenomenal.  The flight attendant was young and attractive, and actually sat with me for quite some time giving me some recommendations for things to do in Melbourne.

Thought the flight was listed as an hour and thirty-five minutes, in reality it was no more than a fifty-five minute flight, wheels-up to wheels-down.  Despite this short flight time, there was still a legit meal service.  The dish was a couscous salad with sliced,  chipotle pork, with lime.  It was very light, refreshing, and pretty delicious — a perfect snack for a short, late night flight.

Pork and couscous salad

Pork and couscous salad

The flight was over too quick, but after the end of a long day I was pretty good and ready to be in Melbourne.

This short little hop was a pretty ridiculously good flight, albeit a short one.  I was quite happy with the domestic business class service provided by Qantas — and the economy flight was pretty impressive too.

How I booked it…

Domestically in Australia, there are three major players:  Qantas, Virgin Australia, and JetStar.  This left me with several options.  Since Qantas is partners with both American and British Airways, I could easily redeem those miles for travel should the flight be expensive.  For short-haul flights, British Airways Avios would work best, as it features a distance-based award chart that can be very advantageous — especially on flights under 651 miles.  For the Cairns to Melbourne segment, I decided to use miles for a flight on Qantas.  At the time, I had very modest balances of both British Airways Avios and American Airlines miles.  I ultimately wanted to fly the both of us in business class, but unfortunately there was only one seat in business left on the Cairns to Sydney segment.   The cheapest way to do this flight in business was with American miles, as it only ran 17,500 miles for this one-way flight in business class.

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class "Wholly Within" Australia

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class “Wholly Within” Australia

Australia one of the "Wholly Within" listed countries

Australia one of the “Wholly Within” listed countries

I then used British Airways Avios for another ticket on the same flights, but in economy.  This came to 14,500 Avios due to the distance of Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne clocking in at two segments (10,000 + 4,500 avios).  See this post for a background in the distance-based British Airway Avios program.

Avios Redemption Chart Courtesy:  British Airways

Avios Redemption Chart
Courtesy: British Airways


Review: Spirit of Freedom Live-Aboard Dive Trip

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Spirit of Freedom

Spirit of Freedom

Spirit of Freedom

We were greeted in Lizard Island by Captain Tony and the Spirit of Freedom crew.  After a short walk to the northern beach, we boarded a dinghy in crystal clear water and motored off to the mothership!  After a thorough introduction and safety presentation, we were shown our rooms.  Since it was all that was available at the time we booked, my dad and I shared a quad room with four bunks and a bathroom.  It was exactly what we expected, and all we needed during the trip.

The Boat

The boat itself is basically a three-story yacht configured to make it a diving vessel.  As such, there’s 1/3 of a deck fully dedicated to SCUBA diving operations — equipment setup, tank filling, storage, etc.  Inside from the dive deck is kitchen and dining room where we enjoyed the wonderful meals aboard Spirit of Freedom.   Further forward on the same deck is the main lounge on the boat, which featured a huge sofa, a bar, and television – it was really a great place to relax between dives.  Six of the cabins were located a deck lower, and a few were on the top deck, just forward of the good-sized sun-deck and aft of the bridge.

The Diving

Spirit of Freedom certainly delivered on the promise of world-class diving.  Over the four days, we enjoyed no less than fifteen dives!  Yes, 15!

On the day of arrival, we enjoyed two afternoon dives on Ribbon Reef number 9 on the Great Barrier Reef.  These dives featured incredible corals and marine life, including a school of barracuda and a large hammerhead shark!

Disclaimer:  The below diving pictures from this trip were compiled by the guests and crew of this dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom from 02 January to 06 January, 2014 — I unfortunately did not take these pictures

School of Barracuda at Ribbon Reef #9


Hammerhead on the GBR


Incredibly clear water makes divers 50m away visible


The Spirit of Freedom from below

Overnight, we steamed over a hundred miles out into the Coral Sea to Osprey Reef – an atoll basically in the middle of nowhere — certainly not a commonly dived part of the world.  The water here was so clear, it was breathtaking.  Visibility was upwards of 200 feet, and was some of the clearest water I’ve experienced anywhere — including the notoriously crystal clear freshwater of the Florida Springs.

We dived five times on the second day of the trip.  The first two dives were on the North Horn.  The second dive was a shark feeding dive, where a box of bait was essentially lowered on to the reef in the middle of about 30-40 sharks.

A feeding frenzy ensued.  And it was awesome.

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

That afternoon, we took in two more dives on Osprey Reef, including “Secret Caves” and “Admiralty” – both dives were complete with a network of tunnels and caves, which were some of my favorite dives of the trip.  After dinner, we enjoyed a night dive of Admiralty, and it was purely spectacular.

The next day, we steamed South to Shark Reef, where we saw an abundance of Silvertip Sharks an unbelievably clear water.  Later in the day, we dove Vema Reef and then returned to the southern tip of Osprey Reef for the final dive of the day at “Rapid Horn” which was probably the best dive of the entire trip due to the impressive wall, abundant sea life, and sheer number of large sharks.  The final day was spent at Bouganville Reef for a fourth day of spectacular diving.  That final day, diving ended a bit early so we could cruise back to Cairns, where we disembarked on the morning of January 6th.


The food was outstanding.  It was far better than I expected, and was frankly better than almost any cruise I’ve ever been on.  The presentation and taste of every meal was top-notch.  Every day, we were woken up at 6:30am for a light breakfast before our first dive.  This was usually a continental affair featuring cereals, muffins, yogurts,  juices and coffee.  We then proceeded to do our first dive of the day.  Upon finishing the first dive, we returned to the dive boat with the aroma of a freshly cooked breakfast greeting us as we walked inside.  This was a hot breakfast of pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs, and a variety of other goodies.  Lunch was usually quite elaborate, and featured a wide range of cuisines throughout the trip.  Dinner was alway a treat, as the staff served us course by course with some delicious meals ranging from beef tenderloin to chicken to a wonderful fish dish.  The final night of the trip was highlighted by an on-deck barbecue with chicken, steak, sausage, and kangaroo, along with delicious sides — it was just amazing having the meal on deck in the middle of the Coral Sea.  There was PLENTY to eat, and all the food was just first-rate.

The Crew

Simply fantastic.  They bent over backwards for us all week.  The trip director, Nic led an amazing lot of dives, and provided excellent dive briefings before every dive, and summaries of the day every evening.  Hostess Jill and the team really couldn’t do enough for us all week — everything we needed was taken care of.  The crew was really as good as it gets!

Spirit of Freedom Crew

Spirit of Freedom Crew


I really can’t say enough about our time on the Spirit of Freedom.  It was a SCUBA diver’s dream — plain and simple.

The diving was some of the best in the world.   The vessel was a world-class live aboard ship.  The crew couldn’t have been any better.  The food was borderline gourmet.  Everything exceeded our wildest expectations.  We really viewed this as THE highlight of our entire Australia experience.  I really couldn’t have thought up a better way to spend some great quality time with my dad than this.

Though the Spirit of Freedom is priced a bit higher than some of its competitors, I can say that you get what you pay for.  Pricing information can be found on the Spirit of Freedom website, here.  I highly recommend this trip to all divers — it’s certainly a bucket list-type trip!

How I Booked it…

No points or miles here!  I sent in a reservation request on the website and finalized the details via e-mail with the Spirit of Freedom staff…

Spirit of Freedom Website

An Evening in Cairns and a Flight to Lizard Island, AU

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

An Evening in Cairns

Upon arrival from Brisbane, we collected our luggage at baggage claim, and took a short taxi ride to the Holiday Inn Cairns.  We checked in and went to the room, which featured a great view of the beach and the Pacific Ocean.

After freshening up, we proceeded to walk around the town of Cairns.  The pier and marina were beautiful at sunset.  Cairns is one of the common jumping off points for tours of the Great Barrier Reef — and that too was the reason we were there.  Cairns is situated on the border of the Daintree Rainforest and the sea, so the vistas are pretty stunning.   The downtown area of Cairns was highlighted by the Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon — a freshwater, man-made beach where everyone was swimming at this time due to several of the beaches close to town being somewhat uninhabited due “Stinger Season” — meaning there were box jellyfish offshore — amongst the most venomous creatures in the world.

We strolled around the marina and the Esplanade and eventually had dinner at Cafe Thailand, a Thai place right near the Cairns Esplanade.  Dinner was tasty, but the service was pretty slow.  One of the creepy things about dinner was the abundance of bats, known as the “flying foxes” that reside in a tree in central Cairns.  Every evening, the bats fly throughout Cairns around sunset — it was pretty unnerving coming from someone who isn’t all that comfortable with bats.  After dinner and dodging bats, we headed back to the Holiday Inn for some sleep.

Flying from Cairns to Lizard Island on Hinterland Aviation

We were in Cairns to start our four night dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom — a live-aboard dive boat based out of Cairns.  We selected the four-night Coral Sea itinerary.  This particular itinerary started in Lizard Island — an island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef — and ended four days later in Cairns.  Included in the trip was a low-level flight from Cairns to Lizard Island — and it was pretty cool.

The Spirit of Freedom representatives picked us up from the Holiday Inn in the early morning of January 2nd and delivered us to the general aviation terminal at Cairns International Airport.  The main operator here is Hinterland Aviation — a small, regional and charter airline with operations in northeast Queensland.  The Spirit of Freedom chartered two flights to take the twenty-two passengers on the hour-long flight from Cairns to Lizard Island.  Our luggage was checked at the bus — and the next time we saw the bags would be on the boat.  We were all weighed in the terminal to ensure proper weight and balance.  After a fifteen minute wait, we were escorted down to the Tarmac to board our Cessna Grand Caravan.  Our plane held ten to twelve passengers and the captain.

Hinterland Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan

Hinterland Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan

We taxied along the runway with great views of the Jetstar 787 and Korean Air 747-400.  We took off to the South and immediately turned east and then north, above the Rhapsody of the Seas — the cruise ship we’d watched departing Sydney several days before.

The flight was about as scenic as it gets as we hugged the Queensland coast — rich with rainforest vegetation.  We then went off shore across the clear water of the Great Barrier Reef.  Eventually, we landed at a small airport on Lizard Island — smack dab in the middle of the GBR.  Upon approach to the island, we saw the Spirit of Freedom – our 122-foot home for the next four nights!



Review: Virgin Australia Economy Class Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

We awoke after a long night out for New Year’s Eve in Sydney to finish packing for our flights to Cairns.  After checking out from the Sheraton on the Park, we took a cab through a sleepy downtown Sydney out to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport for about AUD $35.   Check-in was relatively uneventful despite the morning rush at the terminal.  The check-in agent advised that we check our bags since they were deemed to be a “borderline” size for a carry-on.  We used these bags as carry-ons for our entire trip over on United, but went ahead and followed the gate agent’s advice anyway since we were each allowed a free bag with our “saver” fare.

Virgin Australia:  SYD-BNE-CNS

Virgin Australia: SYD-BNE-CNS

We proceeded through security and grabbed a bite for breakfast in the food court of the domestic terminal T2.  I made a few phone calls to wish folks on the East Coast of the USA a Happy New Year, and by that time boarding had commenced.  Virgin Australia boards its planes from the front and rear.  Due to our seat assignments behind the wing, we boarded through the rear set of air stairs, while the front rows boarded through the front door using the jet bridge.  Our plane was in the “old” livery, as the side of the plane still read “Virgin Blue” — the former name of the Aussie incarnation of the Virgin brand.  The airline was re-branded in 2011, and it joined then “V Australia” and “Pacific Blue” to form what is now “Virgin Australia.”

Our ride from Sydney to Brisbane -- in the old Virgin Blue livery

Our ride from Sydney to Brisbane — in the old Virgin Blue livery

Boarding the SYD-BNE flight

Boarding the SYD-BNE flight

Virgin Australia (VA) 939
Sydney (SYD) – Brisbane (BNE)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  25A
Wednesday, January 1
12:00 PM – 12:30PM
Duration:  1:30

We settled into our seats – the window and aisle seats in row 25 (A and C), hoping that the middle seat did not fill up.  We got lucky, as the door closed shortly thereafter with a relatively light load.  The cabin was clean with hints of purple hues in the bulkhead partitions.  Unfortunately, I found the legroom to be lacking, as I had some very limited pitch to fit my 6’4″ frame.  Luckily, this would only be a short flight.

Legroom (or lack thereof) on a Virgin Australia B737-800

Legroom (or lack thereof) on a Virgin Australia B737-800

There was an in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen at each seat, but upon arriving to my seat, it indicated that the satellite was temporarily down.  I hoped that this was simply because we were still at the gate.  Unfortunately, the IFE was inoperable the entire flight with the exception of a moving map display.  That was pretty disappointing.

The IFE system was down for both flights

The IFE system was down for both flights

We taxied for quite some time before taking off from Sydney.  As we climbed out,  we were blessed with magnificent views of Sydney Harbour and downtown on a beautiful New Years Day.

Shortly after takeoff, a basic drink service commenced.  This was a very standard beverage service, similar to what you’d find on a domestic flight in the US.  I spent the majority of the time on the flight looking out the window at the foreign (to me) Australian coast.   Before I knew it, we were descending into Brisbane where we landed on-time.

We were set to have about a 70 minute connection in Brisbane, but when we went to our gate for the flight to Cairns, it was clear that things were not on-time.   This allowed for us to have a more relaxed lunch in the food court of the terminal.

The delay was extended four different times until we finally were called for boarding around 3pm – about 80 minutes behind schedule.

Virgin Australia (VA) 785
Brisbane (BNE) – Cairns (CNS)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  23A
Wednesday, January 1
1:40 PM – 4:00 PM
Duration:  2:20

Once again, we boarded the rear of the aircraft via air stairs.  This airplane; however, was in the new Virigin Australia livery — a much fresher look that’s constitutes the majority of the Virgin Australia fleet.

Our BNE-CNS ride -- another VA B737-800, but this time in the new livery

Our BNE-CNS ride — another VA B737-800, but this time in the new livery

This flight to Cairns was pretty much identical to the earlier flight to Brisbane – only an hour or so longer.  There were a couple of basic drink services from friendly flight attendants — again, nothing out of the ordinary.  The IFE screen was once again dysfunctional, which was again disappointing.  The pitch in the economy cabin was pretty bad — just as it was on the first flight.  Once again, the highlight of the flight was the view, as we had a great view of some portions of the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest as we flew into Cairns in Northeast Australia.  We made up some time from the delay, and arrived about an hour later than scheduled despite the initial 1:20 delay.

Overall, my experience on Virgin Australia was pretty comparable to a domestic flight on a legacy airline in the states.  There was nothing really special about the experience, to be honest.  The legroom was pretty bad, but that’s the case with most airlines in economy these days.  The price was right, as were the flight times, and those were the ultimate drivers in choosing these flights.  Though there was nothing really wrong with the flights, I do think the domestic Virgin Australia experience is a notch below that of the often raved about Virgin America in the US.

How I booked it…

As previously mentioned, I booked these flights with cash from the Virgin Australia website.

New Year’s Eve at Sydney Harbour

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

 New Year’s Eve at Sydney Harbour

I timed this entire trip in order to be able to take in the New Year’s Eve celebration in Sydney Harbour.  As the first major city in the world to usher in the new year, Sydney’s New Year’s celebration is followed by many people all around the world.  This event is decidedly a big deal in Sydney, and as such, lots of people flood into the Central Business District and fight for a good viewing spot to see the massive midnight fireworks display.  Queues to view the show started to form the afternoon of December 30th — a bad sign for us considering we really didn’t feel like camping out in one spot all day on our last day in Sydney.

An ideal solution would have been to arrange to be on a ferry or boat in the harbour during the show.  Alas, this option was prohibitively expensive, and I didn’t really know anybody in Sydney who had a boat.  So instead, we decided to splurge for a private event hosted at the Italian Village — a restaurant off Campbell’s Cove with a wonderful view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House.  This shindig featured endless appetizers and alcoholic beverages, and was pretty pricey.  But at that point, we’d figured that we had flown halfway across the World, so what the heck, why not?

The restaurant itself featured a large patio outside right on Campbell’s Cove in the Rocks neighborhood — it is the same small cove that stretches from the cruise ship terminal to the Park Hyatt, Sydney.

This basically meant that we’d have unreal views of the celebration.  The views did not disappoint!

Opera House Fireworks

Opera House Fireworks

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Five Days in Sydney: Days Three and Four

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

The Sydney Opera House

After another quick breakfast at McDonald’s, we made the familiar walk from the Sheraton on the Park towards Circular Quay and Sydney Harbor.  We checked the times for the ferries and saw that we had plenty of time before the next boat left for the Taronga Zoo, so we decided to walk out to take a closer look at the Sydney Opera House.  The Opera House is just an impressive sight to behold on the outside.

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

We walked around the base of the massive Opera House and inquired about the New Year’s Eve event being hosted there, but it was a bit out of our price range.    We then proceeded to walk around and zap some great pictures of the iconic building.

 Neither of us were interested in doing the full tour of the Opera House, but we were able to pop our heads in a few times for some pictures.  After about an hour of walking around the Opera House, we headed back to the ferry terminal where we caught a ferry over to Taronga Zoo.

Taronga Zoo

The Taronga Zoo is about  a twelve-minute ferry ride to the north side of Sydney Harbor.  We’d heard great things about the zoo, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.  Though I’m not usually a fan of zoos, I was relatively sure that this would be my only opportunity to see some of the wildlife native to Australia, such as kangaroos and koala bears.  These animals along with many others were all at Taronga.  Probably the most impressive part about Taronga Zoo is the setting.  Perched on the hilly banks of Sydney Harbor, the zoo boasts an absolutely beautiful view of the Sydney skyline, including the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  I feel a visit to the Taronga Zoo is well worth the trip if you have a few days in Sydney.  We purchased a Taronga Zoo Combo pass, which included a round trip ferry ticket and admission to the zoo for AUD $55.

Lunch in The Rocks

We ferried back to downtown Sydney and headed to the Rocks in search for a happy hour spot and a late lunch.  We stumbled upon the Lowenbrau Keller — a Munich style beer hall right in the middle of Sydney.  The thought of some German food and a few liters of beer really sounded good, so we spend an hour over some pork knuckle, brats, schweinebraten, schnitzel, and a couple liters of beer.   It gave me a little taste of Munich — where I make an annual pilgrimage to Oktoberfest.  At this point, my dad was getting pretty worn out from all the walking around and the massive meal, so we decided to take it easy the rest of the day by lounging around in the room and watching a movie, “American Hustle” at a theater a few blocks away.

Bondi Beach and the Bondi to Coongee Beach Walk (sort of)

Today the plan was to visit arguably the most famous beach in Australia – Bondi!  We took the 380 bus from a stop across from the Sheraton on the Park straight out to Bondi Beach.  The trip took about 50 minutes by bus, and cost next to nothing — it was very cheap.  We arrived at the beach in the late morning with once again – fantastic weather.   We decided to walk the coast of Bondi Beach past the Bondi Icebergs Club towards Coogee Beach.  Apparently, one can make this walk in couple hours, as it is one of the most famous and scenic walks in the country, but we stopped after walking a little less than an hour and just enjoyed the wonderful vistas of the Australian coastline south of Bondi.

We returned to Bondi to explore the town and again decided on a burger for lunch at Moo Gourmet Burgers in Bondi (yes, I love burgers and eat them way too often).   The burger here was quite good, but I still do not understand the Aussie obsession with adding beetroot to the burger.  That’s just… strange.  The egg; however…. that, I encourage!

Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens

After a leisurely lunch, we hopped the bus back to downtown and chilled out for a little while in the hotel room.   We then set out to explore the Woolloomooloo Bay area, but stopped first to walk through the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens.  I’m not a huge Botanical Garden fan, but they were pretty impressive.  At this point, we realized how crazy New Years Eve may be the following night, because there was already a line about 200 people deep, armed with tents and ready to overnight in the park in order to grab shore-side seats along the harbor in Mrs. Macquarie’s Park.

Harry’s Cafe de Wheels

Once we were tired of looking at a crazy assortment of plants and palm trees, we continued walking towards Woolloomooloo, and finally stopped for dinner at the famous Harry’s Cafe de Wheels.  Here, we enjoyed some traditional pies (the Harry’s Tiger was fantastic), and they were pretty darn good.  We walked back to the hotel through Hyde Park as it was getting dark, and called it a night.

Sydney Fish Market

At this point, we were both pretty exhausted from the endless walking we’d been doing around Sydney.  Since we planned to be out extra late for New Years’ Eve, we took it easy in the morning, and then headed to the Sydney Fish Market for lunch.   This was the only mild disappointment of our time in Sydney.  I guess I was expecting more after visits to other markets around the world, but I found this space to be entirely too crowded and not all that impressive.  We did eat a decent lunch at one of the many restaurants fish market nevertheless.  We spent the rest of the afternoon packing our bags for our flight to Cairns the following morning, and resting for the big New Year’s Eve celebration!


Five Days in Sydney: Days One and Two

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

Arrival into Sydney

After clearing Australian immigration and customs, I headed to the local cell phone retailer in the baggage claim area to purchase SIM cards for my dad and I.  For about AUD $30, we each procured SIM cards that gave us unlimited data, unlimited local text, and a $450 credit for international calling and texting.  Considering we would be in Australia for two weeks, this was a steal compared to the international plans offered by Verizon Wireless prior to the trip.  After SIM card shopping, we hopped a cab to our hotel – the Sheraton on the Park.  We chose this hotel due to both its location in the Sydney central business district, and the relatively decent rate considering the otherwise astronomical average price of most properties in the area.

Though we arrived at the Sheraton on the Park before noon, they had a room ready for us, which was a relief because we wanted to relax a bit and freshen up after almost two full days of traveling.  Though we were tired from our travels, I always try to make it a point NOT to go to sleep.  I’ve found the best way to adjust to the new timezone and to defeat prolonged jet lag is to get oneself onto the new timezone’s sleep cycle as soon as possible.  In this case, I wanted to do everything possible to stay awake until 8 or 9pm local time — simply so we could get a full night of sleep and awake the next morning more or less adjusted to Australia time.

I’m Free – Free Sydney Walking Tour

One of my favorite things to do on the first day in a new city is to get oriented with my surroundings.  I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is by taking a free walking tour, which is offered in many cities, all over the world.  I generally find these tours to be educational and really helpful in teaching one the “lay of the land” in an unfamiliar city.  These “free tours” operate on a tips-only basis.  If you participate in the tour, a tip is generally expected, and almost always is well-earned.  I encourage you NOT take one of these tours if you have no intention to tip — that’s just rude, as these guides are often local university students who do a really fantastic job.

After a quick Google search, I found a walking tour of Sydney departing a few blocks from our hotel at 2pm that day.  We went to meet the tour guides outside the Sydney Town Hall, just a couple blocks from our hotel.  There were quite a few people on the tour on this beautiful Friday afternoon, so the guides broke up into three groups.  Our guide walked us through the sites of Sydney taking us from the Sydney Town Hall, through the Queen Victoria Building and the Pitt Street Mall shopping district out to Hyde Park.  We continued towards Circular Quay with stops at Governor Macquarie’s Rum Hospital,  the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, and the bird cages on Angel Placebefore stopping for a break for water and ice cream.

After touring the Sydney Customs House, the group made its way around the edges of Circular Quay to the cruise terminal where we took in a wonderful view of the Sydney Opera House as a large cruise ship, the Voyager of the Seas departed.  The walking tour ended in the Rocks area after about three hours.  We found this tour to be extremely informative and well-done.  I’m not really sure what the “norm” for tipping is for a tour like this, but we tipped about AUD $20 per person, as we felt anything else would be pretty unfair considering the thoroughness of the tour.   I highly recommend spending a few hours one day in Sydney to take this economical and very nice “free” walking tour.

After the walking tour, we took he recommendation of our tour guide to try out a pub for dinner in the Rocks called, The Australian Hotel.  Here, we had a couple of beers and I tried a kangaroo burger.  The burger was tasty, but certainly a bit different.  My dad ordered some pizza, but decided not to try the somewhat famous “Coat of Arms” pizza that features both kangaroo and emu meat.  Australia is probably the only country whose citizens enjoy eating their national symbols — the kangaroo and emu.  Could you imagine walking into a bar in the USA ordering “Bald Eagle chicken wings”?   By the time we were done eating and having a few beers, we were pretty tired.  We took a leisurely walk in the late afternoon back to our hotel and called it a night at about 8pm.

Manly Beach

We awoke Sunday morning around 9am after a full thirteen hours sleep!  Of course, we were starving, so we walked down the street for a real Australian breakfast — McDonalds!  As we downed our egg McMuffins, we planned out the day and put together the things we wanted to do the next several days.   We knew we wanted to see more of the iconic Sydney Harbor, so we decided to walk that way to Circular Quay, and see what the options were.  What we found was a beautiful day in Sydney, where another Royal Caribbean cruse ship was docked at the harbor (the Rhapsody of the Seas).  Our two options for the day were to head to Manly Beach or the Taronga Zoo.  We opted to purchase roundtrip ferry tickets on the Manly Ferry out to Manly Beach since it was one of the longer ferry rides offered, and the weather was just perfect for a boat ride.  The cost was AUD $7.40, each way.

The ferry ride lasted about 35 minutes en route to Manly Beach, and the views were magnificent.  As we sailed out past the Sydney Harbor Bridge, we turned to the East and motored right past the famed Sydney Opera House.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We arrived at Manly beach soon after.  A bustling beach community, Manly features a rather large, inviting beach with a number of shops, restaurants, and bars that line the beach and go back several blocks.  The two of us walked the beach for a while, zapping pictures before settling down for some lunch at the Manly Grill.  We had a nice, outdoor patio seat where we enjoyed a bucket of prawns, burgers, and beers as we watched the people of Manly Beach walk by.  After lunch, we explored the town a bit before heading into a cool looking bar in the Manly Wharf Hotel, right near the ferry pier.  Here, we enjoyed a few beers and tried to figure out the game of cricket, which had the locals captivated, as The Ashes Tournament between England and Australia was on the television.  After giving up on cricket, we hopped back on the ferry for another late afternoon, scenic ferry ride back into Sydney Harbor.  

 Upon returning to Sydney, we headed over to the Rocks to view the Rhapsody of the Seas as she departed the Port of Sydney for her cruise, and we got some wonderful pictures of the harbor and the cruise ship.  By this point, we were pretty spent, so we headed back to the hotel for a few hours of relaxation.  After a couple of hours in the room, it was clearly time to eat again.  We wanted to do something low-key, but fun, so we walked about fifteen minutes to Darling Harbour.

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbor is a highly developed harbor in Sydney that is lined with restaurants, bars, shops, movie theaters, and other touristy things.  By the time we got to Darling Harbor, the crowds were growing for the upcoming fireworks show, which takes place every Saturday night during the summer.  There were thousands of people — locals and tourists who decided to spend the evening dining al fresco to watch the fireworks.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a doner kebab stand in a food court just in time to watch the fireworks.  The show was pretty nice, but I figured it would pale in comparison to the fireworks show we would see a few nights later on New Years Eve.  After the relatively quick fireworks display, we explored the area a bit more and made our way back to the hotel for another full night of sleep.

Next up… More from Sydney:

  • Sydney:  Day Three and Four (Sydney Opera House, Taronga Zoo, The Rocks, Bondi Beach, Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, Woolloomooloo, and the Sydney Fish Market)
  • New Year’s Eve in Sydney