Fifteen Days in Australia – Planning

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

Planning

Putting a two-week vacation to Australia is no small feat.  Doing so almost purely using frequent flyer miles for ones’ flights can be even more difficult, as finding award availability to Australia over New Years is a very, very tall order.  Nonetheless, I managed to throw together a memorable 15-day trip to Australia during in which almost all of the transportation and some of the hotels were paid for with miles.  Here’s how I planned everything…

International Flights

As previously mentioned, I speculatively reserved two Global First Class seats on United for a Christmas Day flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) since I’d always wanted to go to Australia.  Since I was fortunate enough to have a relatively large stash of United miles along with 1K status with United, I always kept my miles tied up in speculative awards since it ultimately costs nothing for a United passenger with at least Platinum status to refund or change these awards.

United Global First Class Suite - from United Airlines

United Global First Class Suite – from United Airlines

For months I tossed around the idea of spending New Years Eve in Sydney to friends, and it never seemed to really stick.  During a trip back home last September, I casually mentioned the idea of heading to Australia to my dad.  I never thought he’d accept the offer since he’s always maintained that he would never spend that amount of time on an airplane.  However, it seems the offer of first class seats to Australia dramatically changed the situation.  After conferring with my mom, my dad enthusiastically accepted my offer — and just like that, the serious planning for Australia began. At that time, I had two one-way trips to Sydney in United Global First Class booked.   I had them both originating in Tampa since I planned to be there for the Christmas holiday.  Since neither United nor one of its Star Alliance partners offered a nonstop flight from Tampa to Los Angeles, we were forced to take a layover somewhere.  Due to favorable flight times and the availability of first class award space, we decided to transit through Washington-Dulles (IAD) en route to LAX.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United.  80,000 miles each.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United:  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD (80,000 miles each)

I had about 60,000 miles left in my United account, and I had a speculative round-trip award booked to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.  Since I’d already been to Brazil three times in 2013 alone (including here and here), I happily canceled my trip to the World Cup in favor of finding the two of us a way home from Australia!  It basically came down to the following decision:  Take my dad on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia OR Go to the World Cup in Brazil (and subsequently visit Brazil for the 4th time in 14 months). For me, the decision was easy:  we were going to Australia! Once I had the 100,000 miles from my World Cup trip refunded to my account, I started to look for a return routing back to the United States.  Ideally, I wanted a first class award. Sadly, there were no non-stop routings from Australia back to the United States available at any time during January 2014, so I was forced to come up with a backup plan and transit home via Asia.  On United’s website, the award search engine will not give you every combination of flights available when you search something like Sydney to Washington DC.  Instead, you need to break the flight up into smaller segments.  By doing this, I was able to find the following routing in first class on Thai, Air China, and United:

sdf

Original Return:  SYD-BKK-PEK-NRT-SFO (Thai First / Thai Business / Air China First / United First)

I found the above individual segments available, but the United Award booking engine would not piece this itinerary together, as it frequently struggles with putting together multi-segment award itineraries.  In order to book this award, I dialed up the United Premier 1K phone line and had the friendly agent convert my one-way awards to Australia into round-trip awards that included the return home above. Before I hung up the phone with the United agent, I mentioned how I wished that there was award space available on one of the non-stop United flights from Sydney back to the States since I knew my dad would not be too excited about the prospect of spending 40-some hours on our flights home.  The agent then offered to put in a wait list request for first class award space on both the Sydney routes to the States (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Not thinking much of it, I agreed and then ticketed my award with the crazy routing. Not two hours later, I received an e-mail from Untied indicating that my wait list request had cleared for my preferred date for the Sydney to San Francisco (SFO) segment!

My Wait list confirmation email!

My Wait list confirmation email!

I immediately called United back, and sure enough — they opened non-stop first class space from Sydney to San Francisco!  I easily tacked on a non-stop flight from SFO to Washington-National (DCA) for myself, and a flight back from SFO to Tampa via Charlotte on US Airways for my dad.

dfg

Return flights:  SYD-SFO-DCA (blue is my flight from SFO on United); SYD-SFO-CLT-TPA (red is my dad’s flights from SFO on US Airways)

Just like that, we had ourselves flights to and from Australia!

Finally had the long flights booked!

Total Cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles (United Global First Class)

Total cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles

What to do in Australia?

With the tough part taken care of, I then started to talk to my dad about what, exactly he wanted to do while we were in Australia.  One thing I was adamant about was spending New Years Even in Sydney, as I wanted to see the celebration on Sydney Harbor.  As such, I’d reserved a room at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney for five nights, departing on New Years Day. The number one thing my dad wanted to do on this trip was to dive the Great Barrier Reef.  My dad and I were certified SCUBA diving together when I was twelve years old, and have always enjoyed going on dive trips together — and Australia would basically be the epitome of all our dive trips!  I knew that the Cairns / Port Douglas area was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so I started looking at options.  With the exception of a few day trips to the GBR, many of the diving options were multi-day live-aboard dive trips.  I broached this idea to my dad, and he was once again VERY enthusiastic about this.  I researched the various live-aboard dive boats that leave from Cairns, and based on reviews and descriptions, we decided to take a very highly recommended, four-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom.  Though it was one of the pricier options, we figured that it would be well worth the cost for such a “bucket-list” experience.  After a few e-mails back and forth to the folks at Spirit of Freedom, we were all set to depart Cairns on 02 January and return on 06 January.

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary *Map from Spirit of Freedom

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary
*Map from Spirit of Freedom

That left us three days until our return flight back to the States from Sydney.  I broached a couple of ideas to my dad including a trip to the Outback or spending a few days in Melbourne.  After asking around, he told me he wanted to do Melbourne — so that was the plan!

Domestic Flights

With the details planned out of what we wanted to do in Australia planned, I then turned to flights.  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.  At the same time, both Virgin Australia and JetStar are relatively low-cost airlines that sell somewhat cheap and reasonable flights domestically in Australia. I weighed my options for a couple of days and decided to buy our flight from Sydney to Cairns (via Brisbane) on New Years Day from on Virgin Australia.  Though it wasn’t cheap (around $240 per person), it was the only choice with a reasonable departure time (10am).  The mileage option would have required a 6am flight on New Years Day — no thank you. 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

Our last flight of the trip required a positioning flight from Melbourne back to Sydney.  I checked the option of award space on the Melbourne to Sydney tag-on flight that’s operated by United, but there was no award space available on that AT ALL.  The good thing about this flight is that Qantas runs hourly non-stops on the route, and as such, the prices are pretty reasonable.  We ended up just booking the flight in cash for less than $100 per person.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 8.59.06 PM

Domestic Australia Flights — Purple: Virgin Australia; Red: Qantas; Cyan: Spirit of Freedom positioning flight via Hinterland Aviation

Total cost:  17,500 American Miles + 14,500 BA Avios + ~$680.

Hotels

As previously mentioned, I was able to get a very nice rate at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney over New Years.   With its central Sydney location, it was perfect for getting around the city.  I use the phrase “very nice rate” lightly — as it was still pricey — just not nearly as obscene as the pricing at other properties in Sydney over New Years. We also found a pretty cheap rate at the Holiday Inn Cairns for our one and only night there before our dive trip. We agonized for a bit over our hotel selection in Melbourne.  We were torn between the Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt properties, but ultimately decided to stay at the Park Hyatt due mostly to the fact that some of my most amazing hotel stays up to that point had been at Park Hyatt properties (Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich).  I used Hyatt points for two of the nights and we paid for the last night at this property.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

The End Result

Booked with miles / points:

  • Domestic flights in United First Class from TPA-IAD-LAX
  • International flight in United Global First Class from LAX-SYD
  • Domestic flights in Qantas Business and Economy Class from CNS-SYD-MEL
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • International flight in United Global First Class from SYD-SFO
  • Domestic flight in United First Class from SFO-DCA and in US Airways First Class from SFO-CLT-TPA

Booked with cash

  • 5 nights at the Sheraton on the Park, Sydney
  • Domestic flights in Virgin Australia Economy Class from SYD-BNE-CNS
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn, Cairns
  • 4 nights Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom
  • 1 night at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • Domestic flight in Qantas Economy Class fromMEL-SYD

    sdf

    The End Result!

 

Fifteen Days in Australia – Introduction

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

Introduction

NYE Sydney Harbor

NYE Sydney Harbor

It started in March of 2013 when I friend and I were speculatively looking for availability to Australia in first class on United’s website.  Then, lo and behold, we found copious amounts of Global First Class award space on Christmas Day to Sydney.  Though there were no seats on the return flights, those were just unnecessary details…. I just wanted to get to Australia.  And I wanted to be in Sydney over New Years.

Mission accomplished.

After a series of changes, substitutions, and intense planning, this trip of a lifetime was finally fully booked by the end of October.  My trip for one had morphed into a trip for two, but I couldn’t have been any more happy to spend my miles on this travel companion — I mean, when would I have another chance to take my dad to Australia?

That’s right — I was taking my dad to Australia for a trip of a lifetime — a trip that I never thought he’d agree to take.  It’s funny how first class tickets change one’s opinion of taking a fifteen hour flight.

During the next few weeks, this series of posts will detail the fifteen memorable days that we spent together down under, including:

  • United Global First Class from Los Angeles to Sydney
  • Five days in Sydney
  • New Years’ Eve on Sydney Harbor
  • Virgin Australia Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns
  • A day in Cairns
  • Four days diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea on the Spirit of Freedom live-aboard dive boat
  • Qantas Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne
  • Three days in Melbourne
  • The Park Hyatt, Melbourne
  • United Global First Class from Sydney to San Francisco

Enjoy this sneak peak…

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Review: Park Hyatt Tokyo

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1 (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda
Tokyo, Day 1 (Park Hyatt arrival, Roppongi)
Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)
Park Hyatt Tokyo


I’m not going to make it a habit to regularly review hotels unless the stay is extraordinary — and this stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo was exactly that.

As previously mentioned, I arrived from Tokyo’s Haneda airport and was whisked away to the 41st floor lobby, where I was escorted to my room by two people where they performed the check-in procedure in my room.  This alone was impressive to me.  As stated before, I had an Park Deluxe Twin room on the 44th floor.  It was very good-sized with all the amenities one could want.

Executive Twin Room

Executive Twin Room

My room

My room

Bathroom

Bathroom

There were so many details that were not missed in the room, and little surprises awaited me in every drawer, nook, and cranny of the room.  The room included a pretty spectacular walk-in closet, along with a large bathroom with twin sinks, a full-sized tub, walk-in shower, and toilet.  I had a wonderful view South from my room towards the Shibuya area.

View from my room

View from my room

The service at the Park Hyatt Tokyo was phenomenal wherever I went.  From the check-in procedure, to the breakfast service at Girandole, to the bar and dinner service at the New York Grill — everything was top-notch.

The 41st floor features The Peak Bar and Lounge, which features high, glass ceilings and spectacular views of Tokyo.

The Peak Bar and Lounge

The Peak Bar and Lounge

IMG_3957 IMG_3955 IMG_3953 IMG_3952As you walk towards the lobby, you pass Girandole, the restaurant where breakfast is served.  I enjoyed two spectacular breakfasts here, both times ordering the eggs Benedict.

Girandole

Girandole

Eggs Benedict at Girandole

Eggs Benedict at Girandole

There is also a Japanese restaurant, Kozue that I did not try, which gets high marks.   Up top is the iconic New York Grill, from Lost in Translation fame.  The 2003 film featuring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray used the Park Hyatt and specifically the New York Bar and Grill as the setting. It did not fail to disappoint, as both the food and service were excellent both times I went there.

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

The Park Hyatt Tokyo's famous New York Grill and Bar

The Park Hyatt Tokyo’s famous New York Grill and Bar

I’ve stayed at some very nice hotels in my life, but this one took the cake — this was without a doubt the most over-the-top and nice hotel in which I’ve ever stayed.

How I managed to stay here…

I was able to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo for three nights.  For two of the nights, I used two free nights which I received after applying for the Chase Hyatt Visa Card.  The third night, I used 22,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points that I have accumulated over time.  For reference, a normal night at the Park Hyatt Tokyo is typically over $550 per night, so this would qualify as a pretty good use of points if you ask me!Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 7.20.48 PM

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Four Days in Tokyo: Day 3

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1 (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda
Tokyo, Day 1 (Park Hyatt arrival, Roppongi)
Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)
Park Hyatt Tokyo


…Continued from Day 2 

Harajuku and a Ramen Lunch

I slept in the following morning due to a pretty late night out.  My two friends departed in the morning to begin their trip back to Dubai via Kyoto and Hong Kong.  It was a dreary day in Tokyo, and I was hungry.  At that point, I had yet to try some decent ramen, and I planned to visit the Harajuku neighborhood and Meiji Shrine that afternoon, so I easily pin-pointed a top-rated ramen shop called Kyusu Jangara, which is right near the Harajuku station.   Apparently, it is one of the more famous ramen shops in Toyko, and the ramen was definitely delicious.

sd

Kyusu Jangara Ramen in Harajuku

sdf

The “zembu-ire” Ramen at Kyusu Jangara

I ordered the specialty, “zembu-ire” or “with-everything” and it included Kyusu-style ramen noodles, egg, salted roe, and several large pieces of pork fat, which were amazing.   This was some of the best ramen I’ve ever enjoyed, though my favorite ramen place is still Toki Underground in Washington, DC.  If you’re ever in the District, go!

Anyway, after eating, I took a stroll through Harajuku.  The main strip in Harajuku is Takeshita Street – a pedestrian-only alleyway lined with some unique fashion boutiques, restaurants, and other shops.  The entrance to the street is located directly across from the JR East exit of Harajuku Station.  This area is the teenage fashion center of Tokyo, and it is definitely a sight to see.  This strip is a never-ending barrage of neon, anime, and oddly dressed, but supposedly fashionable Japanese teenagers and young adults.

asdf

A rainy day on Takeshita Street in Harajuku

Ummm... Japanese fashion?

Ummm… Japanese fashion?

It’s worth it just to stroll down the street and take in the sights and sounds.  One of the crazier things you’ll see are lingerie-advertisement trucks blasting pop-music driving through the streets of Harajuku — truly bizarre!

Meiji Shrine

Located on the opposite side of Harajuku Station is the Meiji Shrine.  The Meiji Shrine is located in a 700,00 acre forest right in the middle of the Harajuku / Shibuya area of Tokyo.  I took a quick stroll through the forest and made the 3/4 mile walk to the actual shrine.  It was definitely impressive, and was pretty much exactly what I had expected.  The weather was pretty awful, so I went through the area pretty fast to “check it off my list.”  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Entrance to the Park

Entrance to the Park

Long walk to the shrine

Long walk to the shrine

Sake barrels

Sake barrels

Entrance to Meiji Shrine

Entrance to Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Me at the Meiji Shrine

Me at the Meiji Shrine

 Tokyo Dome

After my visit to the Meiji Shrine, I went back to the Park Hyatt to rendevouz with another friend who happened to be in Tokyo the same time as me.  We met up, hit up the metro, and headed to the Kasuga station for a trip to the Tokyo Dome!  That evening, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters were taking on the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in a Japanese baseball game!  I am a huge baseball fan, so a Japanese baseball game was high on my list of things to do in Tokyo.  And wow, what a different experience.  Though the game is the same, the crowd is quite a spectacle.

The famous Tokyo Dome!

The famous Tokyo Dome!

Panoramic of the Tokyo Dome

Panoramic of the Tokyo Dome

We sat in the outfield with all the crazy fans — they were constantly on their feet, screaming and belting out cheers.  The environment of the almost sold-out Tokyo Dome was more similar to that of an American college football game than a baseball game.  Overall, this was an amazing experience.  Oh, and the beer girls operate at another level of Japanese efficiency!

Insane Fans!

Insane Fans!

Yup, that's a keg.  On her back!  Kirin on tap?  Yes, please!

Yup, that’s a keg. On her back! Kirin on tap? Yes, please!

Dinner at the Park Hyatt’s  New York Grill

After the game, we were pretty tired, and wanted something pretty convenient.  Becauser of the late hour that we returned from the ballgame, we decided to try out the Park Hyatt’s iconic New York Grill for dinner.

The Park Hyatt Tokyo's famous New York Grill and Bar

The Park Hyatt Tokyo’s famous New York Grill and Bar

Famous from its starring role as the setting of the 2003 Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson film, Lost in Translation, the Park Hyatt, and particularly the New York Bar & Grill feature some of the best vistas in all of Tokyo.    For dinner, I had a mixed salad and the Hokkaido Ribeye, which was excellent!

Hokkaido RIbeye at New York Grill

Hokkaido Ribeye at New York Grill

The dinner was pretty pricey, but then again, it was the New York Grill — at the Park Hyatt— in Tokyo.  So a cheap meal was not really expected.  After the meal, I was stuffed and decided to call it a night.

 To be continued with an installment for each day I spent in Tokyo…

Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)

 

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Four Days in Tokyo: Day 2

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1 (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda
Tokyo, Day 1 (Park Hyatt arrival, Roppongi)
Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)
Park Hyatt Tokyo


…Continued from Day 1

Imperial Palace

The next morning, we took the Tokyo Metro to the Tokyo station and made a short walk from the northeast entrance to the Imperial Palace.

Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo

Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo

Imperial Palace on a moat

Imperial Palace on a moat

Guardhouse

Guardhouse

The Imperial Palace is located in a massive park in the middle of the city.  We primarily walked through the East Garden of the Imperial Palace complex.  The Garden was beautifully landscaped and is a true oasis in the  middle of the biggest city in the World.

East Garden of Imperial Palace

East Garden of Imperial Palace

East Garden

East Garden

After about an hour of walking around the Imperial Palace grounds, we decided to leave and head over to Shibuya to hit up Shibuya Crossing during the lunchtime rush.

Shibuya Crossing

After a short metro ride to Shibuya station, we emerged just a block or so away from the famed Shibuya Crossing.  This is supposedly the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world.  Unfortunately, on this particular afternoon it started to rain pretty hard.  Surely that thinned out the crowd a bit.  We zapped a few pictures and then headed up to the Starbucks for an aerial view of the crossing.

Shibuya Crossing from Starbucks

Shibuya Crossing from Starbucks

This Starbucks is the highest-grossing Starbucks in the world, and it provides an awesome aerial view of all the people crossing the street.  We hungout at Starbucks for a little while until the rain subsided, and then started weighing our options for lunch.

Me in rainy Shibuya

Me in rainy Shibuya

Ebisu and lunch at Blacows

After we asked about a place to find an awesome Wagyu beef burger in Tokyo, the concierge at the Tokyo Hilton highly recommended Blacows in the Ebisu neighborhood, just south of Shibuya.  We decided to head there for lunch.  It took about thirty minutes to walk from Shibuya Crossing to Ebisu, but we took a leisurely pace as we stepped into a handful of vintage stores on the walk.  Upon arriving into the Ebisu neighborhood, I immediately liked it.  Ebisu is an upscale neighborhood lined with restaurants, bars, patiserries, boutiques, and vintage stores.  I much preferred this neighborhood to the hustle and bustle of Shibuya and Roppongi.  With minimal effort, we located Blacows, tucked away on a side street in Ebisu, a few blocks from the Ebisu station.

Blacows

Blacows

Blacows literally translates to “black cow”– referring to the legendary black Wagyu beef, which is used exclusively in the burgers made here.  This place has been proclaimed by several websites and periodicals to have “the greatest burger in the world.”  While I’m not ready to proclaim this as the best burger I’ve ever eaten, it certainly was in the top five.  After being immediately seated, I ordered the bacon, egg, and cheeseburger for 15oo yen.  Oh, man this thing was good.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Bacon, egg, and cheeseburger at Blacows

Bacon, egg, and cheeseburger at Blacows

Blacows... Nom Nom!

Blacows… Nom Nom!

If you’re a fan of burgers, definitely check this place out while you’re in Tokyo.

After lunch, we strolled around Ebisu to the Ebisu Garden Place and the area Sapporo Beer Headquarters before taking the JL train back to Shinjuku.

Japanese Kendo Fighting

After a quick nap, I hit up the Manager’s Happy Hour at famed New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. The view from the New York Bar offers some of the best views of Tokyo and the immediate Shinjuku area.

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

Late afternoon from the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Late afternoon from the Park Hyatt Tokyo

I then proceeded to the Tokyo Hilton where I met my friends to embark on a visit to the Shinjuku Cosmic Sports Center where we arranged to sit in on  Kendo practice.  Kendo, or “way of the sword”  is a Japanese martial art based on sword-fighting.   This form of kendo features bamboo swords, or “shinai” and lightweight armor called “bogu.”  Formal competitions are judged with points, and the goal is to strike the opponent on the throat, the top of the head, the side of the head, the sides of the body, or forearms.  The kendo instructor was extremely happy to have us sit in on their practice, and it was an extremely cool experience.  For an hour, we watched dozens of Japanese kendo fighters basically whack the hell out of each other with fake samurai swords.

Kendo!

Kendo!

Fight!

Fight!

It.  Was.  Awesome!

More Kendo fighting

More Kendo fighting

A calm end to an intense Kendo session

A calm end to an intense Kendo session

I highly recommend trying to experience this while in Tokyo.  The best thing to do is to ask your hotel concierge to arrange a trip to a practice if there is not a formal fight while you’re there.  I suppose one could contact the Shinjuku Cosmic Sports Center itself, but there was not much English spoken there.

Shinjuku Dinner

After our kendo experience, we hopped a metro back to the main Shinjuku station in search of a dinner place.  We ended up seafood barbecue and Izakaya (bar)  place that came highly recommended by a few locals, called Marukou-Suisan in Shinjuku.

kj

Marukou-Suisan in Shinjuku

The place was packed, and we were the ONLY Westerners in the joint.  While the language barrier was a bit of a challenge, we managed to have a pretty good sampling of the menu brought to us.

Sake!

Sake!

Mussels and Squid

Mussels and Squid

Mussels

Mussels

Grilled Calamari

Grilled Calamari

Oysters

Oysters

Some dishes were good; some were pretty awful, but the overall experience was quite special.  Grilling raw seafood on the dinner table was certainly fun time.

Grilled Prawns

Grilled Prawns

Tempura fish (I think?)

Tempura fish (I think?)

Tempura peppers and veggies

Tempura peppers and veggies

We sat next to some locals who could not have been  nicer, and introduced us to a whole bunch of shochu — a Japanese distilled liquor.  We hit that pretty hard, actually…

Shinjuku Golden Gai District

Upon completing a huge dinner, we were ready to go out on the town.  This time, we decided to keep things relatively local, and headed to the famous Shinjuku “Goledn Gai” district.  This is a relatively small area of a few square blocks that features the highest concentration of bars in the world.  Most all of the bars are small, shanty-style bars with no more than 15 bar stools.

The bars of Golden Gai

The bars of Golden Gai — ha.. Baltimore!

Each bar is essentially a different dive bar that has a different theme – from jazz to karaoke to R&B to punk rock — , and we thoroughly enjoyed hopping to a number of different places throughout the night and into the early morning.  Apparently this is an area frequented by locals, and Westerners have had a hard time being welcomed, but we had no problem whatsoever (shocking, I know).

Shinjuku at night

Shinjuku at night

After a few hours in the Golden Gai district, we decided that it was time for some late-night noodles before we called it a night.  We stopped in a noodle shop in a back alley just north of  the north entrance to Shinjuku station in Nishi-Shinjuku.  This area is filled of narrow alleys that are lined with ramen and sushi shops — it’s a must see in the early evening hours, for sure.  We settled on a decent looking noodle shop, and were served a piping hot bowl of Soba noodles topped with tempura fish.  It was freakin’ awesome, and a perfect small meal to end the night.

Perfect late night meal

Perfect late night meal

 To be continued with an installment for each day I spent in Tokyo…

Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Four Days in Tokyo: Day 1

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1 (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda
Tokyo, Day 1 (Park Hyatt arrival, Roppongi)
Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)
Park Hyatt Tokyo


I arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport and headed to investigate the bus situation into town.  I had read that there was the Airport Limousine bus available to take guests directly to the Park Hyatt and other Shinjuku hotels from Haneda airport, and that I should look for the orange bus at the transportation desk.  Sure enough, this transportation desk stuck out easily.

Airport Limousine counter

Airport Limousine counter

I inquired about a bus to the Park Hyatt, and there was one leaving in 20 minutes.  Perfect.  The cost was 1200 yen (~USD$12).  These busses run between both Haneda and Narita airports and a number of Tokyo area hotels and metro stations.  It’s probably the cheapest way to transit directly between the airport and your hotel.  The important thing to remember is that it’s the orange bus that reads “Friendly Airport Limousine”.

Park Hyatt Arrival

The bus ride from Haneda took just under an hour during Monday afternoon rush hour traffic.  As I exited the bus at the Park Hyatt, I was greeted by name by a bellman.  I have no idea how they knew it was me – all I had indicated was that I was arriving mid-afternoon from Haneda — but they did.

Pulling up to the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Pulling up to the Park Hyatt Tokyo

I was escorted with my luggage up to the lobby on the 41st floor.  There, the bellman introduced me to very nice lady at the front desk for check-in.  Then, to my surprise, she escorted me, along with the bellman to my room – an “executive twin room” on the 44th floor.  There, she pointed out features of the room, setup my folio, and checked me in from the comfort of the desk in my room.

My room

My room

WOW.

This was a spectacular start to what would ultimately be the best hotel in which I have ever stayed.  I will write a separate post solely on this hotel at a later time.  But do know this – the Park Hyatt Tokyo blew away any and every expectation that I had.  The stay was simply phenomenal.

View from the Park Hyatt Tokyo lobby

View from the Park Hyatt Tokyo lobby

Roppongi

After checking in and unpacking, I was beat.  I got in touch with a friend from grad school (my old roommate) and arranged to meet him and his cousin out later that night.  I had missed them in Dubai (where they live) due to my flight issues on the way over to Asia, and instead they met me in Tokyo.  A short nap ensued, and then I walked a few blocks to the Tokyo Hilton, also located in Shinjuku, to meet the roommate.

His cousin had gone to dinner in Roppongi, so we decided to track him down — and this proved more difficult than we were anticipating.  After a brief metro ride to Roppongi, we set out looking for the restaurant where he dined called Omae XEX  to find him.  For what it’s worth, while I did not eat here, he raved about the place and proclaimed that he had the best steak of his life there.  Rated as the #10 restaurant in all of Tokyo, I don’t think he was lying.

We had limited navigation capabilities, but I used the data on my phone to navigate with Google Maps.  By the time we got to the restaurant, he was gone.  Luckily, he left some bread crumbs, as the hostess knew who we were and told us that he’d gone to a bar nearby for drinks.  We eventually made it to R2 Supperclub to meet him for drinks.  This place was very low-key and relaxing speakeasy-type establishment — an overall perfect place for drinks and conversation.

R2 Supperclub Picture from EON Holdings

R2 Supperclub
Picture from EON Holdings

After sipping on a couple Suntory Yamazaki 18 single-malts, we decided to take a walk around the lights of Rappongi to find another place.  After about ten minutes of walking around to the never-ending harassment of soliciting club promoters, we decided to go back to R2 Supperclub.

Monday night in Roppongi

Monday night in Roppongi

Eventually, we called it a night and cabbed back to the Shinjuku to get some rest.  Maybe it was the fact that it was a Monday night, and there weren’t all that many people out, but I was not impressed with Roppongi, other than the gem of a lounge that we found.

 To be continued with an installment for each day I spent in Tokyo…

Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Two Days in Dubai, Day 1

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1  (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda


After clearing passport control, I found a greeter from the Park Hyatt who led me to my private S-class limo for my transfer to the hotel.  Since I was staying at a suite at the Park Hyatt, this transfer was complimentary.  As we went outside to get to the car, the overwhelming heat and humidity of Dubai hit me hard.  It was only 5:30am, and it was already approaching 100 degrees!  I guess that’s what I get for deciding to go to Dubai in the summer time.

The transfer to the Park Hyatt Dubai is only a 5-10 minute car ride, as the property is located on Dubai Creek, very close to the airport.  The Park Hyatt itself is a stunning property. 

Park Hyatt grounds

Park Hyatt grounds

Park Hyatt Dubai

Park Hyatt Dubai

Park Hyatt Dubai indoor promenade

Park Hyatt Dubai indoor promenade

I checked in and was walked to my suite where I was meeting a friend who had checked in the day before – on my intended arrival date.  I was to meet a group of about 20 frequent fliers who were gathered in Dubai for a big meet-up, dubbed the “DubaiDO.”  My roommate and I chatted for a bit, and then I took a nap to get some additional rest before brunch.

The living room of my suite at the PH Dubai

The living room of my suite at the PH Dubai

The view from the balcony of my suite

The view from the balcony of my suite

We scheduled Friday brunch for 12:30pm at the Traiteur Restaurant at the Park Hyatt.  It was an all-you-can eat and drink affair, featuring Veuve Clicquot champagne and a massive assortment of foods.  In Dubai, Friday brunch is a BIG deal.  The weekend in Dubai spans Friday and Saturday, so the Friday brunch is a great kickoff to the weekend.  Our group of about twenty people had two tables of ten reserved.  The spread was truly spectacular and delicious.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.  It was well worth the price.

Grilled lobster and beef tenderloin

Grilled lobster and beef tenderloin

Assortment of grilled seafood and meats, including sausages, lamb, and duck

Assortment of grilled seafood and meats, including sausages, lamb, and duck

Wines and desserts

Condiments and appetizers

Assortment of side dishes

Assortment of side dishes

My first dish

My first dish

Meats, cheeses, and breads

Meats, cheeses, and breads

After 3.5 hours of food, drinks, and glass upon glass of champagne, we finished up an epic brunch and decided to take the party to the pool.  The pool at the Park Hyatt is beautiful, and is an awesome place to escape the ridiculous heat.  An array of palm trees keeps the pool relatively shaded, which is great in the middle of the desert.

The beautiful pool at the Park Hyatt Dubai

The beautiful pool at the Park Hyatt Dubai

We had previously arranged reservations to go to the top of Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building at 6:30pm, so we headed that way at about 6pm.  We arrived at the Mall of Dubai and followed the signs to get us to the “At The Top” observation deck.  Though the observation desk is ironically NOT at the top of Burj Khalifa (nor is it anywhere close), the views are pretty stunning nonetheless.

Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world

Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

Unfortunately, it was quite hazy the entire time we were in Dubai, but we were still able to get some pretty cool vistas of the downtown Dubai area.

Dubai from the "At the top" Observation Deck

Dubai from the “At the top” Observation Deck

Hazy day in Dubai

Hazy day in Dubai

A city carved out of the desert

A city carved out of the desert

Long ways down...

Long ways down…

While we were up top, the sun went down, and we got to witness one of the water shows (similar to the ones at Bellagio in Las Vegas) from above.

Water fountain show from above

Water fountain show from above

Burj Khalifa at night

Burj Khalifa at night

Me at Burj Khalifa

Me at Burj Khalifa

This was a great experience, but in the future, I’d wait to make sure it was a clear day before paying the ~USD$30 to go up there.

After Burj Khalifa, the group wanted to grab some drinks, so we decided to checkout the Atlantis Resort at The Palm Islands.  The Palm Islands carry that name because, well – it’s a group of islands.  In the shape of  a palm tree.  Only in Dubai, right?  The cab ride from Burj Khalifa out to The Palm was about USD $20.

While most things in Dubai like food, drinks, and merchandise are expensive in Dubai, the cabs are relatively dirt cheap.  We cabbed pretty much everywhere and found them to be very reasonable priced.  This was a good thing considering that Dubai is very spread out.  It’s quite a haul from the Dubai Marina or Palm Islands to Burj Khalifa or Dubai Creek / Park Hyatt.

The Atlantis is at the very tip of the island.  Having stayed at Atlantis in the Bahamas a number of times, I found this resort pretty similar, but nowhere near as grandiose as the Bahamas version.

The Lobby of The Atlantis Palm

The Lobby of The Atlantis Palm

Aquarium at Atlantis Palm

Aquarium at Atlantis Palm

Looks pretty similar to Atlantis Paradise Island

Looks pretty similar to Atlantis Paradise Island

We proceeded to the outdoor bar called Nasimi Beach for a couple drinks.  After about 45 minutes, we had to go inside because it was just too hot outside.  We then settled on drinks and sushi at Nobu.  As with most things Atlantis, Nobu was very expensive.  After a few drinks, we decided to call it a night and headed back to the Park Hyatt where the group hungout for a bit before going to bed.

Continued…