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

Review: United Global First Class Los Angeles to Sydney

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

United Airlines (UA) 839
Los Angeles (LAX) – Sydney (SYD)
Aircraft:  Boeing 747-400
Seat:  1A (Global First Class)
Wednesday, December 25
10:05PM – 7:50AM (+2 days)
Duration:  14:45

Our B747-400 at the gate in LAX

Our B747-400 at the gate in LAX

After a bit more than an hour in the lounge, we were escorted to the gate by a United agent from the Global First Class Lounge to a separate air bridge, where we entered the Boeing 747-400 from the first door.  I selected seats for my dad and I in the first row — at the very tip of the nose of the 747.  These seats were absolutely fantastic since there was virtually no foot traffic by us.  Since it is in the nose, these seats were close enough to each other to have a conversation, yet far enough apart to where we could each enjoy our private space.  They were also separated from the rest of the first class cabin, so it really did feel like our own little mini-cabin.  I would highly recommend row 1 when flying solo, or with a companion in United Global First Class on the B747-400. The seat itself is very spacious and extremely comfortable.  In an upright position, one has an immense amount of personal space.  There is also a ton of storage all over the suite.  There is a good-sized In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) screen which has an impressive collection of movies, TV shows, music, and games.  I really enjoy United’s movie selection and find it to be one of the better IFE systems out there.

Shortly after boarding, the lead flight attendant, Doug introduced himself to us and brought us a pre-departure beverage and amenity kit.  The amenity kit for Global First Class is very nice, as it includes basically anything one would need during a flight.  My favorite part about the amenity kit is the actual case — it’s functional and re-usable, as I still use it to this day as an overnight kit.  Anyway, Doug and his crew took great care of us throughout the flight — the service was pretty outstanding all around on this particular flight. I oriented myself with my seat / suite, and started a movie, as I’d planned to watch a movie, have dinner and go immediately to bed.  Our departure was delayed for about 30 minutes as the crew confirmed the weight and balance of the aircraft. We finally pushed back around 10:35PM.  After taxiing for about a minute, the plane came to a stop.  Minutes later, the captain announced that they were having a mechanical difficulty, so we returned to the gate. This process would repeat itself two more times.

By 1AM, I was pretty convinced that they were going to cancel the flight due to mechanical issues.  Fortunately, we finally pushed back and taxied out to the runway for an actual departure at around 1:15am, about three hours late after three separate delays.   Our arrival time into Sydney was updated to around 10:20am local time on December 27th. Takeoff from LAX was pretty cool, as you could really feel the power of the 747 in the very front of the aircraft.  My dad particularly enjoyed this flight since it was his first time flying the Queen of the Skies — the Boeing 747.

As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew began dinner service at around 2AM Pacific time — about 5AM eastern time.  At this point, it was so late, I wasn’t even sure I was hungry, but went ahead and ordered anyway.  I ordered the coconut shrimp and spring roll for a warm appetizer, and this was relatively tasty.  The tomato soup was piping hot, and went great with the warm garlic bread and pretzel rolls.  For my entrée, I ordered the tamale stuffed chicken.  This dish could have been quite good if it was pulled off properly.  Unfortunately, my dish was given the heavy hand with the salt and spice, resulting in a dish that was so salty and spicy that it was barely even edible.  This was pretty disappointing, as I’d heard good things about this particular dish.  My dad ordered the beef ribs for his entrée, and he was similarly disappointed by a very tough and borderline inedible dish.  Luckily, the ice cream sundae somewhat salvaged the meal.   Overall, we found the dinner service to frankly not be up to standards for an international first class product.

After dinner,  I finished up my second movie and went to go change into more comfortable clothes to sleep in.  As I went to the lavatory to change, Doug offered to turn down my bed, which I found to be a nice touch.  I returned to my seat with the bed turned down and padded with a duvet and two over-sized pillows.  I slept wonderfully in this seat — it was probably one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had on a plane, as I was out cold for a good nine or ten hours.

Long Flight!

Long Flight!

I awoke about 90 minutes prior to arrival in Sydney.  Doug came by check on my sleep and to inquire as to whether I wanted breakfast.  After I changed back into my travel clothes, Doug delivered a continental breakfast of scones, croissants, yogurt, and fruit.  While not overly memorable, it was tasty enough.  After breakfast, we prepared for arrival into Sydney, and talked to Doug for a bit — again, the crew was fantastic and very friendly. Final approach and landing in Sydney was beautiful.  The weather was perfect, and I had a wonderful view of Sydney Harbor as we approached Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport.  We ultimately arrived three hours late, at around 10:20am on a beautiful summer morning.  We were handed fast track passes for immigration, and ultimately got through customs and immigration in about 20 minutes.

Bottom Line

United’s Global First Class is a very comfortable way to fly across the Pacific.  The seat and cabin are far superior to the BusinessFirst offering on the same aircraft.  The service on the flight was very good — excellent by United standards.  Sadly, the catering — the food, wine, and drink selection was a disappointment.  The catering was worse than my previous experiences in United BusinessFirst, and is nowhere near competitive with other airlines’ first class offerings that I have experienced.   At the end of the day, we flew first class in order to be as comfortable as possible on the long flight to Australia, and United Global First Class certainly delivered in that aspect, as we arrived in Sydney well rested after a very comfortable flight.

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 San Francisco (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 Seattle, Seattle to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Denver.

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…

Review: JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

In honor of the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve decided to publish some previously un-published blog entries that I already had written about my trip there last September.  I’m not going to change anything since these were my thoughts immediately upon returning from Rio.  


 

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions
JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro 


We arrived in the late morning after our overnight flight from Houston via a private transfer from the airport to the hotel. Though we arrived well before check-in time, they still had our room ready.  This was probably because my roommate this trip was Platinum Status with Marriott.  By comparison, I was only Gold status, which I received as a benefit of having United Premier 1K status.

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

The JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro is located smack, dab in the middle of Copacabana Beach, making it one of the best situated hotels on Copacabana.  The lobby was undergoing renovations while we were there, so that was a bit obnoxious, but we got over it.  Despite the ongoing renovations, the two-story lobby was quite large and an overall attractive space.

We had a standard deluxe ocean-view room on the 11th floor with a beautiful view of Copacabana beach.  It was a good-sized room with a functional bathroom and very comfortable beds.  The highlight of the room was the view.

Since we were both Marriott elite, we had access to the concierge lounge.  The concierge lounge features a two-story glass wall overlooking Copacabana.  There is ample seating space with a couple of TVs and computers.  Breakfast is served in the lounge, and it was delicious.  They also serve a variety of tasty appetizers every evening, along with unlimited beer and wine.  I ended up spending more time in this lounge than I planned, but oh well!

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro Concierge Lounge

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro Concierge Lounge

One of my favorite features of the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro is the stellar rooftop patio and pool.  The rooftop has an amazing view of Copacabana.  I spent one evening here around sunset, and it was beautiful.  There is a nice bar where one can order a beer or a fantastic caipirinha.  The rooftop pool looks inviting, though I didn’t take a dip.  From the south side of the roof deck, one can see the sunset behind the Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer statue.  It’s just a fantastic outdoor space, and one of my favorite things about the hotel.

All in all, this is probably one of the best hotels in all of Rio de Janeiro due primarily to its location.  Marriott is mighty proud of this hotel too, as it’s quite pricey.

How I booked it…

We booked this hotel with Marriott points.  My friend had a ton of points since he regularly stays with Marriott, so he used those.  The JW Marriott is a category 8 hotel, which requires 40,000 Marriott points per night.  This is still a decent deal considering the standard rates at this hotel are often well north of USD $400.

Marriott Rewards Free Night Award Chart

Marriott Rewards Free Night Award Chart

 

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions

In honor of the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve decided to publish some previously un-published blog entries that I already had written about my trip there last September.  I’m not going to change anything since these were my thoughts immediately upon returning from Rio.   Also included are some pictures from the soccer futbol game I attended at the famed Maracana Stadium.


 

For previous installments from this trip, please see the links below:

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Revew:  JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

An entry from a previous stop in Rio:  

Eight hours in Rio de Janeiro


Getting there and Getting around

As previously mentioned, a group of friends and I booked this trip down to Rio due to an extremely low price that was offered by United last February for Rio flights leaving Orlando. This forced me into a pretty crazy routing, as I flew all over the place to and from Rio. Getting down there, I flew Washington to Orlando to Houston to Rio. And on the way back, I flew Rio to Houston to Denver to Orlando to Washington. Yeah — that’s a lot of flying. But hey, I got mad miles for it, and I slept most of the time, so it wasn’t all that bad!

My routing:  US Airways in Red; United in Blue

My routing: DCA-MCO-IAH-GIG// GIG-IAH-DEN-MCO-DCA; US Airways in Red; United in Blue

The flights were nothing terrible, and nothing great to speak of. Since my long flights were in economy class, I don’t find those particularly interesting, so I’ll hold off on a full-fledged flight review.  I did get a very roomy first row of economy plus behind BusinessFirst on United’s B777-200 (two-class, pre-merger Continental configuration).  This was great because it featured even more leg room than the standard Economy Plus, and there was only a bulkhead in front of me — not another seat.

Getting to and from the Beaches from GIG

Ground Transportation to and from the beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, and Barra)

We arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Galieleo International Airport around 9:30am and proceeded directly through immigration and customs. Since this was not my first time in Brazil, I already had obtained a Brazil Visa, which is necessary for entrance to the country for US citizens. We pre-arranged a shuttle to our hotels through shuttlerio.com. This cost 20 real per person, each way, and it a pretty good deal. Considering the Real Onibus is 13 real per person each way to the beaches, the extra 7 real is definitely worth it since the shuttle takes a much more direct path to the beach with fewer stops. The shuttle took a little less than an hour to get to the JW Marriott on Copacabana, while the bus can take 90 minutes to two hours at times.

For detailed information on taking the Real Onibus to or from GIG to the beaches, see this post:  Eight Hours in Rio de Janeiro.

Our trip back to the airport took well over two hours on the Real Onibus from Copacabana, so be sure to allot plenty of time.  In fact, be sure to allot plenty of time no matter which mode of transportation you choose — the traffic in Rio is horrendous.

During the next three days, I did a whole bunch of different activities. From lounging on Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches to visiting Cristo Redentor to attending a Botafogo soccer game at the famed Marancana Stadium – I had a packed three days.

Transportation along the beaches

The three major beaches in Rio are Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon (from north to south).  While Ipanema and Leblon are connected, there’s a mountain between Copacabana and Ipanema, so transit is needed.  There are a series of public buses that run every 5-10 minutes from multiple stops along all beaches, so that’s the cheapest and easiest way to get from one spot to another.  Since I was with a group, we found it easier to just take a cab to meet different parts of our group at Ipanema.  Split three ways, the cab was quick and cheap.

 Seeing the sights (Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain)

There are various tour operators that can arrange a trip for you to either of these landmarks.  Since we had a group, we hired a guide who took us everywhere in a minibus — it was really fantastic, and I highly recommend you look into that route just for convenience sake.  Otherwise, you can easily take a cab to Sugarloaf Mountain.  Cabbing to Christ the Redeemer could be a little more complicated.  You can either cab to the base of the mountain and take a tramway up, or you can cab all the way to the top.  You can likely negotiate a round trip rate for the cabbie to wait for you up top, but I imagine it would be a tad pricey.

General Impressions

Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about my trip to Rio, simply because of Brazil’s somewhat negative reputation due to the violence in Rio and other large cities.  After spending four days there, I am happy to report that at no point did I feel in danger in any way, shape, or form.  Granted, you need to be aware as you do in any large city, but from my experience, the danger of Rio did not apply.  Now, do keep in mind that I stuck to the upper end beach communities of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon during my time, there – it wasn’t like I was roaming favelas at 3am.  Still, most tourists – especially from the US – focus their time on those beach communities anyway.

One big takeaway from the time I spent there was the terrible, terrible traffic.  It took two hours to get from the beach to the airport, and traffic in general was gridlock – especially during anytime close to traditional rush hours.

The single most attractive quality of Rio – its location on the ocean and along the mountains are it’s single biggest challenge.  Due to these geographical restrictions, infrastructure is pretty poor in Rio.  I honestly cannot imagine how they will successfully rectify their infrastructure and improve it enough to successfully host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.  I imagine the city will come to a literal stand-still for those 16 days.  Rio may survive next summer’s FIFA World Cup, simply because the event will be spread throughout 12 different cities in Brazil, and only 5-6 games will actually be held in Rio.

Despite these infrastructure deficiencies, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Rio.  It is one of the most beautiful cities I have  visited anywhere in the World.  I am completely looking forward to returning sometime soon… will I be there for the World Cup next summer?  There’s a very good chance!

Review: Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


After a wonderful breakfast at the Bunratty Meadows Bed & Breakfast, we dropped our car off at the Budget Rental Car center at the Shannon Airport after topping off the tank at a nearby gas station.  An Avis and Budget shuttle took us to the terminal, where we proceeded to Aer Lingus Business Class check-in.  At this point, I revealed to my girlfriend that we were actually flying business class home.  The entire trip, she was under the impression that we were flying economy back across the pond, since I kept that little detail to myself.

Check-in for business class actually seemed like it took a little longer than regular economy check-in, but we were in no hurry.  After check-in, we proceeded through security and on to the pre-clearance inspection station for the United States Customs and Border Control.  Shannon is one of the only airports in Europe (other than Dublin) to offer pre-clearance into the United States.  Since one goes through US immigration and customs in Shannon, you don’t have to go through the long immigration queues upon arrival back in the States.  Pre-clearance required us to undergo an additional security screening before getting in line for immigration and customs.  After immigration, there were two Global Entry kiosks where my girlfriend and I went ahead and put in our details to avoid the lines.  The only difference between Global Entry in Shannon and in the US is that in Shannon the customs agent asked me for my checked bag bar code, he scanned it, and then had me verify the picture of my bag on the computer.  I knew that this type of security was used, but this was the first time I actually saw it in action.

After zipping through Global Entry, we made our way to the Rineanna Suite — the business class lounge for Aer Lingus passengers at Shannon.  The lounge was nothing special, and actually quite barren with no exterior views.  It did; however, have canned Guinness — one of which I drank as a farewell to Ireland.  After fifteen minutes in the lounge, our flight to Boston was called for boarding.

Aer Lingus (EI) 135
Shannon (SNN) – Boston (BOS)
Aircraft:  Boeing 757-200
Seat:  2C
Sunday, May 18
11:40AM – 1:25PM
Duration:  6:45

We boarded our Aer Lingus B757-200 and turned left to take our seats in row 2, seats A and C.  The 757 is a newly acquired aircraft for Aer Lingus, as three of these airplanes were acquired from Air Contractors to facilitate year round service from Shannon to Boston and New York, as well as adding year round service between Dublin and Toronto.  The flight is actually operated by Air Contractors, but everything was branded as Aer Lingus.  I’m not really sure who the crew actually belonged to!  Since the 757 features a newly installed interior, the business cabin does not feature the same seats that are on Aer Lingus’s A330 fleet.

The business cabin on the Aer Lingus 757 consists of 12 seats — three rows of four seats in a 2X2 configuration.  The seat itself is pretty basic.  There is one basic control to control the recline (up or down), as it reclines into an angled lie-flat seat.  It does NOT lie completely 180-degrees flat.  The leg rest needs to be extended manually in order to get the seat into a bed-like state, which I found odd.  Another oddity is the location of the TV — it seems much lower than on other aircraft, but I suppose it worked fine.  Overall, the seat was perfectly fine for lounging for 5-6 hours, but I don’t think I would have had the most comfortable sleep in it — it was simply not wide enough for me, and the angle was pretty severe when in “lie-flat” mode.

One we settled into our seats, the flight attendant offered us a pre-departure glass of champagne, which we gladly accepted.  She then distributed basic amenity kits and menus.  We pushed back on-time and took off from a rainy Shannon Airport, and ascended to the West over the green fields of Ireland.  Once we hit 10,000 feet, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems were booted up, and I browsed the movie selections.  The selections were pretty decent with a good range of recent movies to classics.   I put on the movie Troy just prior to the start of lunch service.

To commence lunch service, I was brought a mediocre blended Scotch (Teachers) along with a selection of canapés from a cart.  None was particularly memorable, but they included goat cheese on toast, a mushroom pate, and antipasti.  The canapés were followed by the appetizer and salad.  I chose the smoked chicken appetizer instead of the seafood plate, and it was basically sliced deli chicken, which paired reasonably well with the accompanying plum chutney.  The salad was fresh enough, but didn’t really feature much lettuce.  For the entrée, we had a choice of a fillet steak, chicken stuffed with blue cheese, sea bass, or penne with tomato and basil sauce.   I ordered the fillet, and my girlfriend ordered the pasta, but we switched since the pasta appeared to be more pesto-based instead of basil.  The pasta was pretty tasty, though I forgot to take a picture of it.  I felt bad for my girlfriend because the steak was pretty awful — it was very dry and chewy.  However, the au gratin potatoes were fantastic.  I enjoyed a chocolate marble cake for dessert while my girlfriend enjoyed a cheese plate.  Overall, the catering for lunch was mediocre at best.  I’d heard some really good things about Aer Lingus catering, but this particular offering wasn’t all that impressive at all.

After lunch, I finished up my movie and pulled out the laptop to load up some pictures from the trip.  That took longer than I expected, because when I finished with that, the flight attendant was coming around again for afternoon tea service.  She brought out a cart filled with various open-faced sandwiches and some scones.  I wasn’t too hungry, so I opted for a scone and some tea.  Afternoon tea was a nice touch — I did enjoy it even though our flight was so short it seemed like lunch service had just ended.

Indeed, we were running ahead of schedule.  As afternoon tea was wrapping up, we had already started our descent into Boston.  Annoyingly, the IFE was shut off about thirty minutes before landing, so we just sat and commiserated how our vacation was coming to an end.  We arrived into Boston over an hour ahead of time, at 12:15 after what was only a five-hour and 35 minute transatlantic flight.  I’ve seriously had longer flights to California from the East Coast.

We pulled into our gate in Terminal A at Boston’s Logan International Airport and were at baggage claim in no time since we’d already pre-cleared immigration and customs.  Our bags were the first ones off the conveyor, so we were able to quickly make our way to Terminal C for our short US Airways flight back home to Washington-National Airport later that afternoon.  And just like that, our trip was over.

Overall, Aer Lingus was decent enough.  I was somewhat disappointed in the seat on the 757, as well as the catering.  The seat simply doesn’t compete with other business Transatlantic products out there, but it’s certainly much better than a domestic first class seat.  The flight attendant in the business cabin was not the warmest character, but she provided adequate service.  Whatever the case, it was perfectly comfortable for a daytime flight across the Atlantic, and it beats economy ANY day of the week!  I consider Aer Lingus business class to be an incredible value if obtained with British Airways Avios (which I did) — so the price was right!

How I booked it…

As I just mentioned, I booked this flight using British Airways Avios.  Since Shannon AND Dublin to Boston is less than 3,000 miles, it falls into an advantageous category on British Airways’ award chart where it only costs 25,000 Avios for a one-way business class ticket (or only 12,500 Avios for economy!)   To put that in perspective, 25,000 miles for business class is LESS than most airlines charge for a one-way economy class ticket to Europe.  It really is the best value for miles across the Atlantic out there — but more on that in a future post!

Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 17

We awoke after a great night sleep at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway, and headed down to breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. Breakfast was included in the room rate, and the spread was downright impressive.  They really had a little of anything you could think of, and it proved to be a wonderful start to the day.  After we checked out, the only plan for the day was to make it down to see the Cliffs of Moher — about a 90 minute drive from Galway.  The drive followed along a scenic, windy road as we followed the west coast of Country Clare throughout he Burren National Park.  When we hit the fork in the road in the town of Ballyvaughan, we decided to take the scenic route to the Cliffs of Moher — via the Ocean Road.  This proved to be a wonderful idea, as the scenery was simply stunning on this wonderfully clear day.   We thoroughly enjoyed driving and then just pulling over to take in the sights of a scenic coastline vista and the occasional castle.

After a couple of hours, we found ourselves in the small, port town of Doolin around noon.  Located about 6km from the Cliffs of Moher, Doolin is host to a ferry fleet where one can take a ferry for a scenic cruise of the Cliffs, or to one of the Aran Islands.  We went down to the pier to inquire with the O’Brien Line about their ferry tour to the Cliffs of Moher, and we were met by a friendly, older Irish man named Bill O’Brien, who happened to be the owner of the tour company.  He informed us that the next ferry was to leave at 3:15pm, and then gave us the “lay of the land” and ensured us that we’d have time to visit the Cliffs of Moher from above before coming back to Doolin for our ferry ride.  The ferry cost €25 for the estimated hour-long trip to the Cliffs and back – a fee that we gladly paid.

We heeded Bill’s advice and made the short, 15-minute drive from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher.  There is a €6 entrance fee per car at the Cliffs, and it is well worth the price of admission.  The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most famous geographical features of Ireland, as they feature a set of jagged cliffs that drop straight off, about 1,000 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.   The views are simply stunning.  We were lucky to have perfect weather that day, so we were not impeded by fog, rain, or mist!

After about an hour of taking in the vistas and snapping dozens of pictures, we headed back to our ridiculous mini car and drove back to Doolin for lunch.  We settled on lunch at Gus O’Connors Pub.  Gus O’Connors was quite crowded, as a tour bus group had just been dropped off, but even still, we were able to receive our food and pints pretty quickly.  I enjoyed a beef and Guinness Stew, which was great.  However, my girlfriend struck out with her chicken and cheese sandwich order, as it wasn’t the most appetizing thing she’d ever seen… or tasted.  After lunch, we returned to the pier for our ferry ride.  As we were waiting for our ferry to return, the weather started to turn as a storm started to pick up.  As the wind increased and the sea appeared to get a little more rough, we decided to go ahead and take our last two Dramamine tablets, just in case.

Good decision.

By the time we got on-board the vessel, the supposed ten minute ride took closer to 30 minutes, as we took ten foot seas over the bow on our short trek to the base of the Cliffs of Moher.  The Cliffs themselves were overwhelming from the bottom.  We looked up to where we stood a few hours before, and the sheer height of the Cliffs sank in as we could barely see the outline of people looking over the towering cliffs, 1,000 feet above.  The ride back to the dock was equally as choppy, and we were two of the only non-seasick passengers on the ferry.  Folks were getting sick left and right, but we had a blast!

By the time we got back to the dock, we were running about an hour behind schedule, so we hit the road en route for Bunratty.  Bunratty is a small village about five kilometers from the Shannon Airport.  We had reservations at the Bunratty Meadows Bed and Breakfast, where we planned to stay the night before our flight home to the States.  We arrived at Bunratty Meadows at around 6:30pm, and were greeted by the hostess, Dariena.  We were shown our room in her beautiful house located on a large meadow overlooking the River Shannon.  The room was extremely comfortable, and had all the creature comforts that we could want. Dariena recommended that we go into Bunratty to check out the famous Bunratty Castle, and then eat at a nearby restaurant for dinner.  The Castle is one of the larger ones you’ll find in Ireland, and it is open to the public along with a folk park that showcases Medieval Irish life.  We got to the castle too late to take a tour, so we just zapped some pictures, took a stroll throughout the famous Durty Nelly’s Pub, and walked across the street to the Creamery Bar for dinner.

I had a delicious dinner of fish and chips with a couple pints of Guinness — a perfect last supper for a wonderful four days in Ireland.  By the end of dinner, we were pretty exhausted from the long day of touring, so we made our way back to the Bed and Breakfast for our last night’s sleep on the trip.

May 18

We’d arranged for breakfast to be had at 8:30am, which would leave us plenty of time to get to the Shannon Airport for our 11:40am flight back across the pond.  We woke up, cleaned up, packed, and headed downstairs to the cute breakfast room where Dariena had four tables set for the four sets of guests that she was hosting the previous night.  There was a selection of cereals and coffee to choose from as Dariena brought out freshly baked scones with an assortment of jams.  I ordered the pancakes, and my girlfriend had the traditional Irish Breakfast.  Both were absolutely delicious, and we completely loved everything about the breakfast that was prepared for us.  Sadly, we had to say our goodbyes and head to the airport.

We really, really enjoyed Bunratty Meadows.  Though it was the only bed and breakfast on our trip, it was one of my favorite accommodations.  Based off this experience, I’d certainly be open to staying at bed and breakfasts more often since they really provide a fantastic value and have much more personality than do most hotels.  I also highly recommend Bunratty Meadows to anyone in the area — it’s especially great if you need to fly out to Shannon the next morning, as it’s only about five kilometers away from the airport.

 

 

The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 16

We awoke around 6:30am to start our drive across the Emerald Isle since we had an 11:30am flight from Connemara Airport, about 45 minutes west of Galway.  The prior day we rented a car, so that was sitting for us in the parking garage.  And oh, what a funny little car it was!  The thing just screamed “European car” and I looked absolutely ridiculous driving it with my 6’4″ frame.  We left The Morrison and proceeded through the outskirts of Dublin right around the beginning part of Friday morning rush hour.  We were headed out of the city, so traffic was light.  We then got on the M4 and then the M6 motorway (very similar to US Interstate Highways), and drove clear across the country in about two and a half hours!  The next thing we knew, we were on the outskirts of Galway.  After proceeding through about a half dozen traffic circles, we were on an ocean-side highway hugging the Galway Bay between Galway and Connemara.  We stopped for a scone and a coffee of a picturesque beach overlooking Galway Bay.

Several months earlier, I arranged for a scheduled flight to take us to the Aran Islands and back.  After tons of research, we decided that we wanted to see the Aran Islands.  We decided on Inishmore since it was the largest of the three islands, and seemed to have lots to see.  Since they’re relatively remote (about ten miles off the West coast of Ireland), the only two options to get to the islands were by ferry or by plane.  The ferry was said to take 90-12o minutes and cost €25-30, while the plane was said to be an eight minute flight for €49 round trip.  Given our time constraint (we needed to do it in one day), the decision to book the flight was an easy one.  We booked the flight directly on Aer Arann Islands’ website, and the process really couldn’t have been any easier.

We arrived at the airport about 45 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time of 11:30am.  We checked in and were situated in the small lobby of the Connemara Airport.  After a safety briefing on TV, the two of us and a third passenger were gathered for boarding for this eight-minute flight that would cover 12 miles — currently the fifth shortest scheduled flight in the world!

We flew a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander — an eight-seat aircraft (including the two pilots) from Connemara (NNR) to Inishmore (IOR) in the Aran Islands with one pilot and three passengers, including the two of us.  After a scenic approach to the island, we touched down and were immediately met by Aer Arann Island officials who had a mini bus waiting to take us to town.  Upon arriving into the main town in Inishmore, called Kilronan, we grabbed a pint of Guinness and lunch at the bar, appropriately named, “The Bar.”  We then walked across the street and rented bikes for €10 each.  The bike shop owner pointed us out the sights we should see on the map, and off we went!

It was about a 6km bike ride along a very hilly and scenic road to the entrance of the must-see prehistoric fort of Dun Aonghasa.  From the entrance, there was another 1km walk up the hill to the ridge of the cliff where the fort lies.

The views from here were magnificent, as the cliffs dropped off some 300 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.

We walked around Dun Aonghasa for about 45 minutes, snapping pictures left and right.  Interestingly, there was no railing along the edge of the cliff, and one could hang their legs off the ledge if they dared — definitely a harrowing feat.  I myself didn’t play that game… I’m way too scared of heights, and I even had weak knees when I walked within five feet of the ledge!

After touring the fort, we descended the hill, got back on our bikes, and made the scenic drive back to town where our minibus picked us up for our return flight back to Connemara.  Inishmore was a MUST see.  If you have time in Ireland, or if you’re in Galway, it’s definitely worth spending at least a day out in the Aran Islands.  I much prefer the flight over there since it saves a ton of time, and you don’t need to worry about the frequently rough seas that you may encounter on a ferry ride.

Upon arriving back in Connemara, we hopped into our mini-car and proceeded to the town of Galway.  We were booked for one night at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway.  We chose this hotel because it was comparably priced to other places, it was within walking distance to the main part of town, and it received some pretty good reviews online.  Parking cost €5 and check-in was a breeze.  Much to our surprise, breakfast seemed to be included in our room rate — win!  The room was basic — comfortable and somewhat modern, but nothing overly special or memorable.  The lobby of the hotel was quite pretty, but we really didn’t spend any time there.

After freshening up, we set out to explore Galway for the evening.  And what an awesome little town it is!  Most of our time was spent along Quay Street in the Spanish Arch area.  This street was lined with pubs and shops, and just had a genuine Irish feel to it.  Galway is right on the water, so that made the town seem especially scenic.  We went into a couple of pubs for pints:  The Quays and The Dail Bar.  We enjoyed both of them, and honestly could have just pub-hopped all night in this cute little town.  Alas, we were starving at this point, so we headed to Finnegans Corner Restaurant & Bar where my girlfriend enjoyed some Shepherd’s Pie, and I had fish and chips, yet again.  The food was really quite fantastic, and we left the place pretty full.  At that point, it was approaching 10pm, and we were exhausted, so we made our way back to the hotel for a decent night’s rest.