Vancouver - Los Angeles - Kuala Lumpur - Singapore - Dubai - Doha - New York

Join me as I travel around the world in 9 days
on four of the world's five-star airlines

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fascinating places...interesting people

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

- Jawaharial Nehru

When people first learned that I would be traveling around the world in just nine days, most people thought I was crazy. My Singapore guide thought so when he first met me. Then he started doing the math and counted the number of hours spent on airlines and airports. I think we came up with a total of 60 hours. After giving it a bit of thought, Danny thought it was a great adventure.

Life is a set of adventures, and I believe that we have to make opportunities, and grab opportunities. Maybe it isn’t traveling around the world. Maybe it’s something different. But life is too short for regrets and what ifs. The hardest part of this trip wasn’t keeping track of a new currency virtually every day, but rather leaving my family behind. If I could have, I would have brought Jack and Carrie along in a heartbeat, I know they would have loved it. Some may think it selfish of me for leaving my family behind. And maybe it is. It’s something I sometimes struggle with. But on the other hand, each experience we have makes us a better person.

If I had not chased this story, I would have missed out on eating delicious Malaysian food with Alzan and Siti. I would never have seen the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the most beautiful building I have ever seen. I would never have shared some laughs and eaten a delicious lunch with the marketing reps at the Fairmont Singapore, or have met Danny, my incredibly funny guide in Singapore. I wouldn’t have seen the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building, or watched the sun sink into the Persian Gulf, while sipping a tasty beer and chatting with Paul and Nicky from Melbourne. I wouldn’t have experienced the “world’s largest” buffet lunch at the Doha Marriott with Updesh and his young, charming daughter. I wouldn’t have met Nirijan, the Nepalese man working at a Doha gas station to support his wife and two children back in Nepal. Or the Arab man who reached out to shake my hand in the old marketplace in Doha, and then placed his hand on his heart.

The world is actually smaller than we think. And it’s full of fascinating places and interesting people. I’m richer for having met those people and seen these places. When I began this journey I left you with these words from Mark Twain. They are still relevant today as they were 9 days ago.

Maybe I'll see you out in the world some time.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

- Mark Twain

So, what is the best airline?

Well, after 9 days, 7 flights, 8 airports, more than 23,000 miles, and 2 aborted landings, my around the world adventure has come to a successful end. The first thing that people ask me is which is the best airline? It’s a very difficult question to answer, because there are so many variables that influence an experience, such as the route, time of day, number of passengers on board, and aircraft type. I had trouble finding any fault with Singapore Airlines, but the cabin crew had it relatively easy, because there were very few passengers on that flight. Would the service have been different if the plane was full? Maybe not.

First of all, you could never go wrong choosing to fly on one of these airlines. There is a reason that each has been given a 5-star distinction. There are many similarities in service delivery between the airlines, but they also have their own strengths and weaknesses. Even though I said comparing the airlines is difficult, I have noted the top airlines in each category below based on my experience.

Friendliness of cabin crew
Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines
The gracious nature and kind hospitality of these crews was remarkable and something that is hard to recreate. There is something special about south-east Asian hospitality that allows these two airlines to excel in this area.

In-flight entertainment
Cathay Pacific
All of the airlines have good in-flight entertainment systems; however, if I were to choose one as a standout it would have to be Cathay Pacific’s new Studio CX.

Pre-take off service
Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines
On both flights, Qatar Airways brought a basket of candies for passengers on a 45 minute flight, and water was given to all economy class passengers before take-off. Singapore Airlines scores top marks for being the only airline to offer real hot towels before take-off. Qatar offered warm towelettes a few times during the flight, but again Singapore Airlines raises the bar offering real towels. Cathay Pacific did not offer any towels.

Qatar Airways
All of the airlines offered good food and selection, but I’ll give the nod to Qatar Airways for offering a light meal on a 45 minute flight. I was disappointed that Malaysia Airlines did not offer a light snack on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, and the croissant in business class should not have been hard. Kudos to both Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways for providing warm bread rolls in economy class.

Cathay Pacific
Cathay Pacific is currently configuring their aircraft with new seats, and I was fortunate to try them on my flight to Vancouver. The lumbar support is excellent, and there is extra support that “wraps around” from the lower back. Singapore Airlines had a good seat with extra “padding” on the edge of the seat, which provided support to the back of the thigh.

Singapore Changi
Hands down, Singapore wins this contest with opportunities to keep passengers busy and entertained. Plus it’s the only airport I know of that offers free 2-hour city tours, and has a dish of candy for passengers at the immigration counters. Singapore does offer free wireless internet, but the drawback is you have to register using a mobile phone number, which maybe most people carry with them, and I am the only luddite that doesn’t have one. Kuala Lumpur comes a close second for airports. I didn’t experience the economy terminal at Doha, so can’t comment, but the premium terminal offers first and business passengers a comfortable place to rest before one’s flight.

Qatar Airways...a pearl in the desert

Most airports have a separate queue at the check-in counters for business and first class passengers. In Doha they do things a little differently. They have an entire terminal dedicated for premium passengers flying on Qatar Airways.

As a guest of the airline, I was probably the only economy class passenger to use the premium terminal yesterday, which comes with spacious and well appointed business and first class lounges, a business centre, jacuzzi and spa, and some modest, yet sufficient duty free shops.

After a bit of breakfast in one of the lounges, it was time to board my flight. Doha Airport doesn’t have any air bridges, so we boarded using the stairs, which actually suits me fine, because it allows for a good view of the aircraft, and harkens back to the good ol’ days of air travel, although I’m not old enough to actually remember those days.

Qatar Airways is a relatively new airline that was launched in 1997. Since then it has grown from four aircraft to 62, with another 178 on order/options, including 5 Airbus 380-800s.

The first leg of our flight to New York was a six hour service to Geneva, which was very comfortable, and the time went surprisingly quick. Qatar Airways offers good service, with two meals on each leg, and like the other 5-star airlines has an extensive in-flight entertainment system.

There were two disappointments. Plastic cutlery in economy and the entertainment controller was fixed to the armchair making it difficult to use. I asked the lead cabin attendant if using plastic cutlery was standard practice (I thought it may have been some inane U.S. security rule), and he said it was. A 5-star hotel wouldn’t use plastic cutlery for their guests, and neither should a 5-star airline. It may seem like a small issue, but it’s the little things that make the difference between a good airline and a superior one. At a 5-star hotel the newspaper comes in a cloth bag each morning. In the 4-star hotel it comes in a plastic bag. Later that day, I would learn that Cathay Pacific also cheapens the experience by using plastic cutlery in economy.

The other issue I had was the in-flight entertainment controller was fixed to the armrest, making it difficult to use. The three other airlines profiled on this trip all had controllers that come away from the armrest. The cabin attendant told me that some of aircraft are configured with the more contemporary system, but the particular aircraft I was on hadn’t been updated.

On the flight from Doha to Geneva, I was impressed that one of the flight attendants laid a blanket on me, when they noticed my eyes were closed. Qatar Airways enjoys 5th Freedom rights between Geneva and New York, which means they are able to sell and transport passengers between two different countries, so more passengers joined us in Geneva for the onward flight. I was suitably entertained on both flights by the extensive and interesting selection of documentaries available for viewing.

We were anticipated to arrive into New York early, which would have been good since I only had a couple of hours to transfer airports from Newark to JFK. Our approach to New York was a little bumpy, but nothing out of the ordinary. I am partially deaf thanks to a couple of screaming kids nearby. I felt sorry for the parents, although the mother probably could have handled a stressful situation a little better. Anyway, everything was looking good for our approach, and then just as cleared the perimeter fence of the airport, the pilots increased engine thrust, and we started climbing away from the airport. This was my second aborted landing in the past few days. The passengers around me were a little unsettled by all this, and my seat mate laughed and commented that I would probably need to take a taxi to JFK, instead of two trains.

After we leveled off, the Captain announced that wind shear was detected at the airport, and they decided to abort the landing. We circled around and made a successful landing. Once on the ground, there was another delay of 30 minutes, because of aircraft blocking the gate. It was then I decided to abandon the idea of taking the trains to JFK and opted for a taxi, which by the way is highway robbery—$91 for the fare and $30 in bridge tolls. One toll was a whopping $22. I told the driver that must be the most expensive toll in the world…he said he didn’t know. Anyway, after having to stop at a bank machine on the way, the driver dropped me off at Kennedy Airport, and after emptying my wallet, I checked in for my last 5-star flight on Cathay Pacific to Vancouver.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Long Road Home

Well, it's time for the long road home. I've travelled almost 14,000 miles so far, but I have another 9,200 miles to go before the day is over. In 29 hours, I will arrive home in the middle of a Vancouver night and will climb into bed for a well needed rest. But before I get there, I have a 17 hour flight from Doha to New York, with a stop for petrol in Geneva. Once in New York, I have a little more than four hours to transfer from Newark to JFK, where I will to connect Cathay Pacific's five-and-a-half hour flight to Vancouver.

Where in the world is Doha?

When I landed at Doha, a car was waiting to transfer me to the terminal. I looked at the outside temperature gauge on the car’s dash. It read 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit). Now the car was sitting on the tarmac for some time, but still the outside temperature was probably pushing 45 degrees. I didn’t try frying an egg on the sidewalk, but I bet I could have made an omelet.

Doha is a city of different faces, and as a result it’s difficult to get a good feel for it on such a quick visit. The old part of town contains a lot of low-level office blocks, many of which are being torn down and replaced with more modern structures. There are many vacant, rubble filled lots and buildings partially torn down. Across the bay is the new Doha, where gleaming skyscrapers are being put up at a dizzying pace. It is here that many of the city’s new luxury hotels are located. And then there is the area where my hotel is located, which has the look of North America suburbia with many western-style restaurants and shops.

Unlike Dubai, the government of Qatar has never been too interested in opening up the country to mass tourism. As a result, Doha doesn’t have a mature tourist infrastructure, so the options for tourists are limited. The government is keen; however, in attracting high-end tourism and will be looking to fill the many luxury resorts that will be opening in the coming months and years.

After sorting out my hotel fiasco, I jumped in a taxi and made for Souq Waqf, the old marketplace. Down narrow alleyways I came across merchants selling spices, perfumes, carpets, fabrics, and everyday household items. It was refreshingly cool deep inside the souq. Qatar is a more conservative country than Dubai, so virtually every woman I passed was swathed in what seemed like suffocating black cloaks. Old men using wheelbarrows would stand outside the shops lugging purchases and waiting for more to be stacked on top.

After I had crisscrossed the market several times, I ambled down to the Cornice, which runs along Doha Bay. It’s an attractive strip of road, lined with palms. The setting sun added to the ambience. Part way down the Corniche, I decided to cross the busy street and found myself stuck in the middle of a large roundabout. Unlike in Zurich, Switzerland, cars here don’t stop for pedestrians, regarding them more as a nuisance. Every time I tried stepping into the street another car came whizzing past. There were times I thought my life was going to end on a sun baked street in Doha. I wondered if I would have to spend the night on the roundabout before being able to cross the street. Finally there was a break and I bolted across.

I was drawn to a large mosque, which was silhouetted by the setting sun. I climbed up a small grassy bank and was about to take a picture when a security guard told me I couldn’t. Apparently it’s part of the Emir’s office. The guard told me it was like the White House and no one was allowed to take any photos. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I have actually seen and photographed the White House. I even stuck my zoom lens through the fence at the U.S President's abode.

I carried on through the old part of town, which at this time of evening was overflowing with laborers socializing on street corners. I decided to try and walk back to my hotel. It’s hard to get a feel for a city sitting in the back of a taxi. I wasn’t exactly sure the streets I needed to take, but I started walking in the general direction. The sun had set, but the heat of the day still made the air thick. And my clothes were getting soaked from the sweat. I looked at my guidebook, which suggested I needed to find Salwa Road. Not sure where it was, I decided to ask at a petrol station. That’s where I met Nirijan, who is from Nepal and works at the station. I told him that big changes were happening in his country. He seemed happy that the King had been deposed, because the people were falling deeper into poverty, and he was more concerned with amassing more money. Nirijan’s family, including his wife and two children, still live in Nepal. He told me that there was no other alternative than working in Qatar. When I told Nirajan of my travels, he asked what stories I would write about Doha. I said maybe I would write about him. “Will it be in the Peninsula, he asked? The Peninsula is one Doha’s English newspapers. I told him I was writing for an international magazine. “We probably don’t get that magazine,” he offered. Probably not. He told me that it would take about an hour to walk to my hotel. When I sounded somewhat disappointed by his answer, he said maybe 30 minutes if I walked fast. We shook hands, and I wished him luck.

As I continued on, I took delight in my conversation with Nirijan. It was the kind of interaction I enjoy in foreign places. I labored on, still not sure, which road to turn down, but when I came to the Rydges Hotel, after having walked for about an hour, I knew I had gone too far. I dragged myself to the entrance and took a taxi back to my hotel.

This morning I took a city tour, which gave me some perspective on Doha. When I first arrived someone mentioned that Doha was bidding for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. I almost laughed. But after spending a day or so here, I’ve come to think maybe it’s not such an absurd idea. The city lacks a lot of tourist infrastructure needed to host such a major sporting event, but they aren’t hosting the 2008 Games, and with the pace of development, the Doha of today will be much different than the Doha in 16 years. The city hosted the 2006 Asian Games and some modern sporting facilities have provided a legacy for the country. There also isn’t a shortage of money here, so if there’s a will anything can happen. If Doha is selected to host the 2016 Olympics, fewer people will be saying, “where in the world is Doha?”

Does your hotel have cold water?

Where in the world is Doha? For those not familiar with the Middle East that’s a good question. Doha is the capital of Qatar a thumb-like appendage sticking out into the Persian Gulf. Doha is a fast growing city, whose population, most of whom are expatriates, has more than doubled in the past 16 years. Much of Qatar’s wealth is generated from the oil and gas industry, although like neighbouring Dubai, the country is diversifying its economic interests.

I was met at Doha International Airport by Updesh Kapur, who works in corporate communications for Qatar Airways, and his charming daughter, Angel. Doha was the one place where I didn’t have any accommodation pre-arranged, so we drove into the city in search of a hotel. We first came to the Al-Muntazah Plaza, a budget hotel that offered a night’s accommodation for more than $200. Hotels don’t come cheap in this town. I did send an email to this hotel inquiring about availability, but I never received a reply. (What’s with people and businesses the world over not responding to emails. If you can’t or don’t want to respond to an email then don’t put one on your website—end of rant)

We were able to get the hotel to drop the rate to a bearable $150. Updesh invited me to join him and his daughter for lunch, so I went upstairs and dropped my bag in the room, and wanted to give my face a quick wash. I turned on the cold tap and hot water poured out. I waited a minute or two, but there was no change. You know it’s hot outside when hot water comes out the cold tap. I tried the shower to see if it was any difference. There wasn’t. I wondered how I was ever going to have a shower with only hot water.

I returned to the lobby and inquired if they have any cold water. The clerks both looked a little sheepish and then said that the water tank for the hotel is on the roof and it gets a bit hot. No kidding! They weren’t willing to lower their rate, so we decided to go for lunch and see if we could book another hotel.

We dined at the Mariott, which had a fabulous Friday afternoon buffet (Friday being like Sunday in other parts of the world). It was the most incredible spread I have ever seen. Numerous stations offering food from around the world were set up through the long hallway. As well, one could also choose from one of the hotel’s ethnically-themed restaurants. It would be easy to spend an entire day gorging on the delicious offerings. After a couple of plates each, we all decided to top it off with a dish of ice cream.

With our bellies full, we now turned our attention to finding a hotel. Updesh made a few calls, and Qatar Airways Holidays kindly arranged a room at the Ramada (a much nicer hotel than the Al-Muntazah) for almost the same price. We returned to the Al-Muntazah to collect my bags, but the hotel didn’t want to refund my money. A lively discussion ensued at which time the “manager”, or someone who claimed to be a manager, said that people should ask before checking-in if a hotel has cold water. This guy was for real. How ridiculous. Who would ever think to ask such a question? After more lively discussion, the hotel agreed to refund the amount paid (we’ll see if it shows on my visa statement).

I then checked into the Ramada. I didn’t ask if they had cold water, but I can indeed confirm that cold water does come out of their taps.

You'll feel like royalty at The Palace

In a city such as Dubai, it is not surprising that the number of 5-star hotels has nearly doubled in the past seven years. Last year, there were 43 such properties, and more are being built every year. In fact, the Burj Al Arab’s self-proclaimed 7-star status is the only hotel with that distinction in the world, but it will soon have company when another 7-star property is completed on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah.

With so many high-end hotels, it is sometimes a challenge to find a unique property. Look no further than the Palace Hotel – The Old Town, which opened last October. The hotel sits in the heart of a developing Arabian village, and boasts an inviting Middle Eastern Theme. Few hotels can beat the entrance to the Palace. I felt like Aladdin, riding a magic carpet, as my taxi turned into the hotel’s entrance, and made the long drive to the front door. The scene at night with two rows of palms flanking a long pool is breathtaking.

No sooner than the taxi had stopped, someone was opening my door and welcoming me to the Palace, while another was unloading my bag. I felt like a Prince who had come home after a long journey. Once inside, check-in was done at a small desk, instead of an impersonal counter as is done in most hotels. While waiting for my room key, someone came by to offer a glass of juice. In the entrance of the lobby, a large bowl, filled with rose petals, overflowed with water. Beautiful Moroccan-style lamps hung above well appointed sofas. The large plasma television on the wall in my well appointed room contained a personalized welcome message.

The hotel is built around a large lake, and from the magnificent swimming pool you can see the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building towering above. While there is still much development, when completed the area will be a big draw for business and leisure visitors.

The Palace takes service to a new level, as every staff person I encountered warmly greeted me and asked if there was anything I needed. The hotel features three restaurants, one of which is available for breakfast. Guests can also choose to eat outside on the patio. If you need distressing, or just want to pamper yourself head to the hotel’s spa.

In a city where hotels are vying for attention, The Palace – The Old Town is a surprising and pleasant oasis. In fact, it is so comfortable that you might never want to leave.
photo courtesy of The Palace - The Old Town

A quick hop across the Gulf

The driver dropped me at Dubai’s Sheik Rashid Terminal, for my Qatar Airways flight to Doha. In total, passengers went through two security checks, once before check-in, and then another before proceeding to the departure gates. Security was fast and efficient, unlike the chaos that seems to ensue at some U.S. airports.

Despite having about five counters open for economy class passengers, check-in took about 20 minutes, which was the longest it has taken me during this trip. Despite flying economy class for this project, Qatar Airways provided me with me a pass to visit their business class lounge.

After completing immigration control, a considerable walk to the departure gates waits passengers, although we were helped with several moving walk-ways. It was the same process on arrival. Once at the departure gates, Dubai Duty Free takes over with a massive shopping experience—a t-shirt for my son, Jack, and a slab of chocolate, measuring 4 ft. x 6 ft. for my work colleagues.

I arrived at the gate about 10:30 am, an hour before our flight, and soon after boarding commenced. Once the stragglers boarded, the economy class cabin of the Airbus 330-300 was nearly full.

I had asked for a window seat, and unfortunately was seated in the bulkhead row. Not a fault of Qatar Airways, but I’m not fond of bulkhead seats, because of the limited leg room. The aircraft was relatively new and the seats were a pleasing maroon colour. Economy class seats were equipped with leg rests.

Before take-off a glass of water and candy was offered, something that few airlines do for economy class passengers. Score one for Qatar Airways. Our 11:30 scheduled departure came and went, with no reason given from the flight deck or cabin crew. The air bridge had been pulled away from the aircraft, so presumably we were waiting for some baggage/cargo to be loaded. It would have been nice if an announcement was made. With the outside temperature a sizzling 42 degrees (107 Fahrenheit), the inside of the aircraft was getting quite warm, while we waited at the gate.

A little more than 15 minutes late, we pushed back from gate 25. A short taxi took us to runway 30R, where we waited for three aircraft to land before lining up for our take-off roll.

Once airborne, the city was visible from the left side of the aircraft, and we passed over Dubai’s new mega development, The World, and in the distance, I saw the iconic Burj Al Arab and Palm Jumeirah through the hazy sky.

Dubai to Doha is a straight 238 mile, 43 minute hop across the Persian Gulf. The sign of a good airline is often how passengers are cared for on a short flight. It’s one thing to pamper passengers on a long haul flight, but yet another on a short flight. In the case of my 45 minute flight a few days ago from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, Malaysia Airlines fell short of their 5-star distinction, as the service was surprisingly average. Sure, the flight attendants were friendly, but the only thing on offer was a glass of juice. There was not even a snack on offer considering the 8:00 am departure. Qatar Airways by contrast, not only offered water before take-off, but once in the air, we were offered a pre-packed sandwich of sorts that was surprisingly spicy and tasty, juice, and a cookie.

As we neared Doha, we banked over the new part of the city, which is experiencing rapid development, and lined up for an approach to runway 16. As we neared the airport, the pilot increased engine thrust and we started climbing. Excellent, I thought, my first go- around experience. The passengers seated next to me felt a little uneasy about this, but soon the Captain announced that we were coming in too high and too fast, and in the interested of safety decided to abort the landing. We banked out over the ocean, made another pass of the city, and then turned again toward the airport for a safe landing.

Doha airport, which in the next year or so will be replaced by a new, larger facility, has no air bridges. Passengers walk off the aircraft using the stairs and then are bused to the terminal. Economy class passengers exit via the rear of the aircraft, while first and business class at the front. There are two terminals at Doha, one exclusively for first and business class passengers (and visiting journalists traveling around the world), and the other for economy passengers.

Qatar Airways had arranged for the Al Maha meet and greet service, which is available to all passengers for a nominal fee. While a Qatar Airways representative attends to your passport and immigration needs, you can rest comfortably in a lounge with newspapers, magazines, and refreshments. First class passengers are also met, as I was, at the aircraft with a BMW and chauffeur. So this is what it is like to be the Emir, I thought, as I climbed into the car for the short drive to the terminal.

A representative also waited at the luggage carousel for my bag. Although sitting nearby felt oddly uncomfortable, as someone was picking up my luggage. Maybe first class passengers are accustomed to such service. Anyway, I told the representative that my bag was tan in colour, like the sand outside. I hated to watch him check every bag that came along.

Tomorrow I will experience Qatar Airway’s long-haul service with a flight to New York (Newark).

Friday, May 30, 2008

Dubai...Like nothing else. Found nowhere else

Dubai. It’s one of those, you gotta see it to believe it kind of places. I walked out of the airport and was smacked by a wall of heat. It was nearing nine in the evening, the sun had been down for hours, and yet the temperature was still 32 degrees. Standing in the taxi queue was suffocating, even with the large misting fans that laboured next to us. I jumped in a cab for the 20 minute trip to my hotel. In the darkness I could make out numerous half completed buildings that had risen from the desert. An army of workers, mostly Indians and Pakistanis (of Dubai’s 1.4 million people, 85% are foreign workers), were busy working on one project late into the night. As we drove on, the entire city looked like one big construction site.

I could make out the yet to be completed, Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building. As of this month the tower has reached a 162 floors, soaring more than 2,000 feet. It was almost a year ago that the Burj Dubai surpassed Taipei 101, which had held the distinction of being the world’s tallest building. To give you an idea of how they do things here in Dubai, so far the Burj is more than 300 feet higher than Taipei 101. And apparently, the final height isn’t being revealed.

The taxi turned into the drive of my hotel and I felt like Aladdin riding a magic carpet. The Palace – The Old Town is a stunning property that resembles an Arabian palace. The notion of an Old Town, however, is somewhat misleading, because the only thing old in this area is the sand on the ground. Only in Dubai can you create a brand new Old Town and get away with it.

In the morning I climbed in a taxi and headed over to Dubai Creek, which is the real old town of Dubai. I asked my driver about the astonishing changes taking place all over the city. He told me when he came to Dubai 18 years ago, there were just a handful of buildings, and a single road in the city. Today, skyscrapers are going up all over the city along with numerous elevated highways.

I wandered through the old souq before jumping aboard an open-sided wooden boat, called an Abra, for the 10 minute crossing of the creek to the Deira neighbourhood. The trip cost one Dirham—about 30 cents, and is probably the cheapest thing in Dubai, a city known for its high-priced real estate and luxury hotels.

Once ashore, I stood for a moment and admired the labourers that were loading cargo onto traditional dhows—old wooden boats—in the searing heat. I carried on and found the spice souq. The alleys came alive with the smell of frankincense, oregano, indigo, sulphur, and other things. I then sourced out the gold souk, a covered area where vendors carried trays of bottled water to sell to parched visitors. I bought some water and sat on a bench like most others. I came to realize why people in this part of the world move slowly, and spend a lot of time lounging about.

Finding a taxi in Dubai at the best of times is challenge, but with the temperature into 40s it would be even more difficult, as no smart person would be walking anywhere. I stood on the corner trying to wave down a cab. A man came up to me and asked if I needed a taxi. He wasn’t a real taxi driver, but offered to take me back to my hotel for 50 Dirhams. I told him that was too much. He chuckled. Out of respect, I thought, that I wasn’t some gullible tourist. Or maybe he was laughing, because he knew I wouldn’t last much longer standing in the heat. I wondered where this kind of heat comes from. Did someone leave a big oven open, or was someone holding a big magnifying glass over us?

I decided to walk to another busy street, hoping that maybe it would bring me more luck. My body was being cooked, and sweat was pouring down my body as I stood on the side of the road waiting and waiting for a cab. It was so hot that every time there was a breeze, I got the chills. Finally after about 30 minutes I gave in and went inside a small shopping mall for a cool drink. Maybe my luck would be better if I took a break, I surmised.

Like a street urchin, I returned to my piece of sidewalk and started begging for a taxi. Some other people looking for a cab stood near me. Didn’t they know this was my turf? I tried to stare them away, but they just stayed there. I moved on. And noticed a hotel not far away. Surely I could get a taxi there. A man driving a black Mercedes asked if I needed a taxi. He offered 50 Dirhams. I waved him off telling him it was too much. I’m sure he was thinking that the fool would be back. As I walked away from his car, I asked myself how long I would last standing in the baking sun waiting for a taxi. The Mercedes inched through the afternoon traffic. Safe from the heat, I retreated to the pleasures of my Arabian palace and found a spot next to the swimming pool.

On a previous trip, I had seen the self-proclaimed, 7-star Burj Al Arab hotel, but my guidebook suggested that the Bahri Bar in the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel was the perfect place to watch this iconic structure at sunset. The recommendation didn’t disappoint. I found myself a comfortable chair on the covered patio, ordered a beer, some dinner, and marveled at this million dollar view, as the sun slowly melted into the Persian Gulf. And a view of the outside of the Burj Al Arab is all most of us will ever see. If you are interested, they have a summer special. Stay a minimum of three nights, and the rate is a bargain at $1,000 per night. Don’t worry they throw in a free breakfast. The hotel is so over the top that you have to take a submarine to one their restaurants.

The next morning our Qatar Airways flight lifted off from Dubai International Airport and made a straight line across the Gulf to Doha. We passed overhead The World, Dubai’s newest mega project in which they have created islands in the ocean and formed them in the shape of the continents. In the distance, I could see the Jumeirah Palm, another exclusive residential area built out into the ocean in the shape of palm.

Like nothing else. Found nowhere else. These are the words that The World is using to promote its development. These could be the words to describe Dubai. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Singapore's the little things

Maybe not surprising, Singapore Airlines is like the country it represents. Welcoming. Industrious. And driven. But before we get to my Singapore Airlines experience, a few comments about Singapore's Changi Airport.

Originally built in 1981, the airport handles more than 36 million passengers annually, and has climbed into the top 20 busiest airports (in terms of passengers) in the world. If LAX was a dump as I wrote earlier, then Singapore's Changi Airport is anything but. There is good reason why it is considered one of the best airports in the world. It's the kind of airport, where you may miss your flight, because of the wide range of things you can do.

Orchids and koi ponds in the terminal building. It's just the beginning. Want to catch a movie before your flight? Then head to terminal 1 or 2 for a free film. Looking for some quiet time before your flight, then check out the orchid, cactus, fern, or sunflower gardens. Play games or watch television in the entertainment lounges, catch up on your email with free internet terminals throughout the terminal. And what airport offers a free 2-hour city tour for passengers with more than 5 hours before their flight?

I arrived at Terminal 2 for my flight to Dubai, and checked-in within four minutes. I aksed for a window seat, and the agent was almost apologetic that the only window seats were at the rear of the Boeing 777 aircraft. I guessed the flight must have been heavily booked. My trip through immigration was just as quick.

Once at the gate, I was surprised at how few passengers were waiting for the flight, and then almost very casually, the we were invited to board the aircraft. The minute we boarded, the infamous Singapore Airlines service began. The first person I met smiled, welcomed me aboard and looked at my boarding pass, directing me to my economy class seat by name.

Turned out the passenger load was quite light on this flight, so in the rear cabin everyone had a lot of space to spread out. The seat was comfortable and had some extra support that most airlines don't offer. Before take-off, we were offered hot towels. Real towels...not the wipes that some airlines offer.

As we climbed away from the airport, I looked at the hundreds of ships in the water below, and realized why Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. Once we leveled off, flight attendants came through with a menu card and offered passengers a drink. I ordered a Singapore Sling, which according to the menu card was created in 1915 at the Long Bar of Singapore's Raffles Hotel. It is a concoction of dry gin, Dom Benedictine, Cointreau and cherry brandy, shaken up with lime and pineapple and a dash of Angostura bitters and Grenadine.

Now before you think that the flight attendant was making like Tom Cruise in the movie cocktail, the drink was pre-made, so all she had to was add a few different things. It tasted great, nonetheless, as we flew across the Indonesian Island of Sumatra.

I had often commented that there was one big difference between economy and business class. Okay, there's more than one diffrence, but only one really counts. In business class the buns are warm, whereas in economy they are cold (good luck trying spread cold butter on a cold bun). But Singapore Airlines shattered this notion, because my dinner bun was warm. Damn Singapore Airlines for wreaking all my great theories.

Malaysia Airlines has a great in-flight entertainment product, but Singapore Airlines kicks it up just a notch. Choose from 80 movies, 106 tv shows, 180 CDs, and 60 video games. You can even play some games against other passengers. When opening multi-player games there is an option for other passengers to join. I clicked on the Tetris game, but then realized with such few passengers, I'd be waiting a while for a challenger.

And the telephone that airlines have at the seat that no one ever uses, you can actually call another passenger on the aircraft. Admit it though, you've always wanted to make that call from the airplane to one of your friends. The conversation would go something like this. "Hey Geoff (or Sean), how are you doing?" "Great, Ken, but you seem a little far away." "Oh, that's because I'm currently 38,000 feet above the coast of India." We all would like to do that until we learn that it will cost us $6 per minute. Mind you, that's what I paid once to call home from a train stration in Zurich.

For good reason Singapore Airlines is a 5-star airline and with continuous innovation and excellence, I don't expect them to lose that distinction anytime soon. I tried hard to find a fault, but I came up empty. The Singapore Airlines service is genuine and polished, and I don't mean in that rehearsed sort of way.

In the next few days, I have two more airlines to experience, and since the sun has just come up in Dubai, it's time for me to go out and explore the city.

The Fairmont Singapore...great view, great food, great service

Danny dropped me off at the Fairmont Singapore, my home for the next 24 hours, and said he would return in the afternoon for our tour of the city. As one would expect from a Fairmont property, the 5-star service begins the moment you step out of your car. Someone is ready to open your door, and another will take your luggage and show you to the check-in counter. The hotel was formerly known as the Raffles Plaza, and has recently been branded a Fairmont. They even asked me at check-in what newspaper I would like delivered to my room in the morning. I assumed they would not be able to deliver the Vancouver Sun, so I opted for The Straits Times, the city’s major English daily.

The bellhop led me to my 23rd floor room, and happily gave a tour of the rooms amenities, including the buttons by the side of the bed that turns the lights on and off and opens the curtains. A sliding glass door opened to a narrow balcony offering a fantastic view of the city, including the stunning $600 million Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, and the hotel’s inviting swimming pool below.

I met up with Jacqueline Chen, the hotel’s marketing representative in the lobby for a tour. One of the first stops was the spa, which has a relaxation room, pools, steam room and sauna, and treatment rooms. Jacqueline asked if I would like to try one of their treatments. A shame that my Singapore stop was too short, because I would jump at an opportunity to experience the spa. I remember fondly my first spa treatment a few years ago at the Marriott Resort and Spa in Sanya, on China’s Hainan Island.

After the tour, we were joined by Belladonnah Lim, who is the Fairmont Singapore’s Director of Marketing, for lunch at Inagiku, the hotel’s Japanese restaurant. I ordered the Ebi Tendon—salad, miso soup, mouth-watering sashimi, and the largest prawn tempura I have ever seen. Belladonna then ordered us all a slice of Japanese monk melon. This light green melon is similar to cantaloupe, but don’t confuse this with your everyday melon that you get from the supermarket. The Fairmont brings it in from Japan and costs about $30SG ($20) a slice. That’s four dollars a piece, Belladonnah said, with a smile, as I bit into piece. It’s the small details of course that make for an enjoyable stay at the Fairmont. Like how someone had closed the curtains in my room while I was out in the evening. How the newspaper came in a cloth bag in the morning. And how even though I had a late check-out someone still made the bed. The Fairmont is conveniently located to many of Singapore’s sights.

photo courtesy of Fairmont Singapore

Singapore doesn't disappoint

I left one award winning airport in Kuala Lumpur, only to land in another. Unlike many airports in Asia, Singapore’s Changi Airport isn’t new; however, their pursuit of excellence has gained it the distinction of consistently being rated one of the world’s best airports. It is the only airport I have been to where a dish of candy greets passengers at the immigration booth, and few airports in the world can match the park-like setting as you drive into the city. Stands of rain trees and palm trees, and flowering bushes line the highway. But don’t think for a moment that these trees are simply meant to impress visitors. Drive anywhere in the city, and you’ll see rich and verdant greenery.

The first time I heard of Singapore was when I was nine or ten years old. A school friend’s father was in the Navy, and once after a trip to Asia he brought back for his daughters, a silk jacket with an embroidered dragon and the word, Singapore, on the back. To this day, I can still visualize that jacket. Then, Singapore seemed like an exotic, far away place.

When Carrie and I first visited Singapore seven years ago, we were captivated by the city. To be sure, Singapore is clean and orderly, but really who would want otherwise. We were drawn to the unique neighbourhoods—Arab Street (which is more than just a street), Kampong Glam, where the Sultan once lived, Little India and Chinatown. Here you’ll find colourful, two story colonial buildings, and merchants selling spices, and carpets, and textiles, and woven baskets, and other goods. So began the anticipation of returning to Singapore.

I was met at the airport by Danny Lorenzo, who would be my guide for the next 24 hours. You’d think that with a name like that he’d be from Brooklyn or Miami, or L.A.. In fact, Danny was born in Singapore, and in many ways represents the face of Singaporeans, many of whom are of mixed origin.

While ambling through the narrow shop-filled lanes of Little India, I spotted the words, Dream Big, on a plastic placemat (you know the ones that your grandma might have bought for you). Dream Big—this could be Singapore’s motto. In the early 19th Century, Sir Stamford Raffles dreamed of a new trading port in Southeast Asia for the British. It was in what has become Singapore, an island at the end of the Malayan Peninsula, that Raffles and others after him have created one of the world’s great cities. And that small trading port is now one of the largest in the world.

In some ways dreams are all people had. Singapore is relatively small with few natural resources—even today water is piped from neighbouring Malaysia—but what the city lacks in natural wealth, it makes up for in ingenuity. Not only does it boast one of the world’s best airports, but Singapore Airlines has oft been the benchmark that others measure themselves by. The airline operates the world’s longest non-stop flight, a 19 hour service from New York to Singapore, and was the first airline to operate the Airbus A380, the world’s largest commercial jetliner. This from a city that has a population of just four-and-a-half million.

Our first stop after lunch was Chinatown, which is graced with a number of beautiful, old buildings, while the sidewalks are filled with vendors selling mostly tourist wares. What started off as a sunny day, soon gave rain to a torrential rain storm, which didn’t let up for several hours. This didn’t dampen the tour, as we jumped in the van, drove over to Little India, and wandered through the shops. Danny pushed back our visit to the Singapore Flyer, hoping the rain would let up. Next we went to Arab Street and drank sweet tea in a small cafĂ©.

The Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel, is Singapore’s latest attraction. With the weather looking as good as it was probably going to get, we climbed aboard for the 30 minute ride As one could imagine, the view was amazing, even on a rainy evening.

Dinner was supposed to be outside at Makansutra Glutton’s Bay to savour local street food, but because of the unpredictable weather, Danny quickly altered plans, and made reservations at the Banana Leaf Apolo, an Indian restaurant, appropriately enough in Little India. Its popularity was displayed by the number of people that were virtually spilling out of the restaurant. We took a table on the covered sidewalk. I ordered the Chicken Tikkal. Danny the Tandori Chicken. We traded travel stories and shared some laughs.

The next morning Danny and the driver picked me up at the hotel and we drove over to Chinatown for a light breakfast at Ya Kun Kaya Toast. The specialty here is toast with Asian jam, and eggs that are cooked very briefly, so the whites and yolk are quite runny. After a delicious lunch at True Blue, which specializes in Peranakan cuisine, a blend of Chinese and Malay, it was time to go the airport for my next destination, Dubai.

Singapore is a pleasing and comfortable city with a lot to offer. As I did the first time I visited, I vow to return.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where are the shower instructions?

Malaysia is known for many things, but if you are looking for delicious food, limitless shopping, and warm hospitality, then you’ll want to find yourself in the mid valley area of Kuala Lumpur. It is here that you will find the Boulevard Hotel, a 4-star property that is connected to the Mid Valley Mega Mall, which I was told is the largest in Malaysia. In fact, there are three hotels connected to the mall, each catering to different tastes and budgets. The newest hotel is The Gardens, a 5-star hotel that sits atop The Gardens shopping centre, which offers an upscale experience. In fact, it’s the first mall I have been to that has a door man out front.

These hotels are conveniently located next to the Mid Valley Kommuter rail station, one stop from Kuala Lumpur’s Central Station, where travelers will find the KLIA Airport Express train. Depending on the time of day, an inexpensive taxi ride will bring you to city’s main sites in about 10 or 15 minutes.

The Boulevard Hotel has a welcoming lobby that opens up with a soaring ceiling. The restaurant, complete with outside eating terrace, and swimming pool area are equally inviting. Have you ever been to a hotel where you need an instruction manual to operate the shower? The Boulevard was kind of like that. I could turn the water on easy enough. I even figured out that the hot and cold were revered from what I am use to. But in the two days that I was there I could never figure out how the shower drain worked. A marble lip, less than an inch high surrounded the shower floor, and I soon found the water cresting over the lip, and covering most of the bathroom floor. Not a big problem, because there is another drain by the door, but it makes for a rather wet floor. Another time I had a shower it worked perfectly, but yet another I noticed the water level rising again. For more reasons than one, I was glad they didn’t have one of those Just for Laughs hidden cameras in the shower, as I was trying to figure out how it worked.

KL...towers, durian, and satay

I was being driven around the streets of Kuala Lumpur. My taxi driver was lost. I knew it and so did he. If I didn’t have someone to meet, I wouldn’t have minded this little tour of the city. But I was now late for a meeting with Azlan Azwan Tahir, the sales and marketing manger of the Cititel Express Hotel. I was told it shouldn't take more than ten or fifteen minutes by taxi from the Boulevard Hotel in mid Valley, where I was staying.

When I inquired with the first driver at the taxi stand he said he wasn’t sure where the hotel was, and smartly declined the fare. The second driver was a little more sure, or at least he said he was. As we made our way into the city, it became clear he had no idea where the hotel was. He stopped to ask a fellow cabbie, and then carried on. Then he called someone on his cell phone. He stopped twice more to ask for directions. Finally after an hour driving through the city, he arrived at the hotel. Fortunately taxi fares in KL are reasonable. It cost me 15RM ($5).

After a quick tour of the hotel, Azlan invited me to join him and two of his colleagues for a traditional Malaysian lunch. On the way, we stopped at a sidewalk fruit stand, and sampled some Rumbitan, a small red fruit, with a sweet jelly-like centre. With an impish smile, Azlan asked if I had ever tried Durian—that infamous odorous fruit. I told him I hadn’t. “We shall have some after lunch then,” he said. “Some people say it smells like hell, and tastes like heaven.”

Lunch was served in an open-air restaurant, although not the type of place that immediately comes to my mind when think of a restaurant. This was an open air structure, covered with a corrugated metal roof. These eateries are common throughout Kuala Lumpur. Rows of portable tables and chairs lined the floor, giving it a camp like feel. It was self-serve, and an assortment of dishes filled large metal trays. Before digging into the large vat of rice, I wondered if my stomach would make me regret the offer of lunch. I heaped the rice on to my plate, and topped it with some curried fish, chicken, and bamboo shoots.

I returned to the table, and noticed that everyone was eating with their hands, a Malaysian tradition. Azlan brought me a fork, but I chose to eat the local way. Someone at the table asked if I had ever eaten with my hands before. Not since I was about two years old, I told them. Like using chopsticks, there seemed to be an art to eating with your hand.

With the tips of your fingers, you collect the rice and meat together, and then scoop it into the palm of your hand. Then comes the tricky part. Without dropping your food, you use your thumb to push it into your mouth. It took sometime getting used to. My hosts said I was a quick learner. I think they were being gracious.

After a delicious lunch, we found a street stand that sold durian, and sat at a small table. Durian is a large tan coloured fruit, with a spiky outside. When cut in half, a light yellow fleshy fruit about the size of a palm is revealed. I bit into it, and didn’t expect the creamy texture. It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated; however, after finishing one, I came to realize that it is probably an acquired taste. My hosts gobbled a few down, before taking the rest in a take-away container.

Azlan suggested I meet them later that evening for some dinner. In the meantime I needed to get a closer look at the Petronas Towers—known locally as the twin towers. The towers are probably the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen. Completed in 1998, and rising nearly 1,500 feet, the Petronas Towers held the distinction of being the tallest building in the world, before being eclipsed by Taipei 101 in 2004.

I decided to walk toward the towers through the Kampung Baru neighbourhood, an older part of KL. I wandered past market stalls and traditional homes. The silvery towers glistened in the afternoon sunlight, acting as a beacon. Soon I came to a dead end. How to get past a highway overpass and across the Klang River, I wondered? I asked someone for directions, and soon found myself walking along a narrow sidewalk on a freeway. I kept thinking that maybe I should have listened to Azlan’s suggestion of taking the monorail. In the distance, the sky rumbled with thunder, and shafts of lightening broke free from the dark, brooding skies. For a moment, I thought I could cheat the rain, but then drop the size of small coins poured from the sky, as if someone was emptying a bucket of water from above. I took refuge for a short time under an overpass, and then found a single lane car tunnel that I hoped would lead to the towers. After nearly an hour of walking through the moist tropical afternoon, I came to the towers, which stood like giants above me. But I couldn’t stay long to marvel at this structure, as the afternoon was wearing on, and the clouds opened up once again.

Kuala Lumpur is an attractive city by day, but it really comes to life at night. Awash in white light, the Twin Towers looked stunning. The KL Tower sparkled with blue lights, and throughout the city, merchants were setting up market stands. In one part of the city, farmers from outlying areas brought fresh vegetables and fruit to the city to sell each night.

I met up with Azlan and Siti, and after navigating through the busy streets, which get jammed with traffic during rush hour, we found a little street-side restaurant known for its satay, a Malaysian tradition.

Two days in Kuala Lumpur gave me a delicious taste of Malaysia, but with little time to savor it, I woke early this morning, and made my way to KL Central Station, where I climbed aboard the fast and convenient airport express train for my flight to Singapore.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Business Class Lottery

To some it may come as a surprise that the world’s best airlines are in Asia. To others who know the industry and know this region, it’s not surprising at all. Asia isn’t what it once was a half Century or more ago. Today, highly functioning economies here have brought money, and with it discerning tastes, and high expectations. Partnered with this is national pride and immense competition in the airline industry. Take for instance the Los Angeles-Taipei route. On the day I left, there were 7 flights between these destinations on three different airlines. Simply put, if airlines aren’t committed to innovation, or don’t offer exceptional service, they’ll be left behind.

Ask anyone to name the top airlines in the world, and you’re likely to hear Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. For years, these airlines have set the benchmark for airline excellence. I have flown both, but to be fair it’s difficult to compare, because the first involved five flights between North America and Australia, while my only Cathay Pacific experience was a one hour hop from Taipei to Hong Kong. Mind you, I did enjoy the cockpit jump seat on the return to Taipei, back when that was allowed.

Malaysia Airlines is a relative newcomer to the 5-star club, and my first on this trip. With nothing to do at LAX, I, and 350 other passengers waited restlessly at the gate for our 19+ hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, with a stop in Taipei. During this time, a number of passengers were called to the desk for important messages. This is called the business class lottery. It’s actually a lottery that only a handful of people are entered, which I suppose makes for good odds, because the majority of passengers know their names will never be called.

Just before boarding commenced the gate agent announced. “Would passenger Kenneth Donohue come to the desk for an important message.” I won the lottery. But I didn’t want to win the lottery. The story I was intending to write for the magazine was about the economy class service of the 5-star airlines.

I went to the counter and some kind man said I had been upgraded to business class and handed me two boarding passes—one for the flight to Taipei and another for the continuing service to Kuala Lumpur. But…but…but… This was the only word that tried to escape my mouth before he said “Enjoy your flight!”

My mind was racing. I kept wondering what I should do. I don’t think anyone has ever turned down an upgrade before. There probably isn’t a procedure for that, and besides they had already moved passengers around and presumably given my economy class set at 40A to someone else.

How was I going to spin this one? How can I be true to the original intent of the story if I’m sitting at the front of the plane in my lie-flat seat that comes equipped with pre-set controls for dining, lounging, and sleeping. And a button that starts a 10-minute massage?

Once on board, I did ask the purser if I could sit in economy on the Taipei-Kuala Lumpur leg. “You want to sit in economy,” he asked incredulously, wondering why I would ever want to contemplate such a thing. I then concluded that life is unpredictable, and sometimes things change. The big test is how we deal with change and unpredictability. So, I sunk into my sumptuous business class seat and tested the massage function. In fact, I pressed that button a number of times during the long flight, and I can tell you it works just fine.

I won’t bore you with all the details, at the moment. Suffice to say the service was excellent with flight attendants being gracious and friendly. They had warm smiles and a playful spirit that is often lacking from airlines in Europe and North America. The food was delicious, and I arrived in Kuala Lumpur as rested as anyone could have, having spent 26 hours getting here. If I were to find any faults it would be the overheated croissant I was served on the first leg. Think hard and crunchy. Even the person sitting next to me commented on the croissant. Sounds like a small thing, but it shouldn’t happen in the premium cabin. To be fair, the croissant I had on the second leg was much better. And my only other complaint was waiting 40 minutes for my bags after arriving at Kuala Lumpur. It wasn’t even busy. In fact, the arrivals area looked deserted.

Tomorrow I’m off to Singapore, a short 40 minute flight on Malaysia Airlines.

LAX is a Dump

You’ll never find Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on an airport ranking for quality service, and if you do it’ll be near the bottom. It’s a dump. In terms of passengers, LAX ranks about 5th in the world, moving 70 million passengers. From here you can go almost anywhere in the world. In fact, it is one of the few airports in the world that serves six continents, but there are bus stations that are more redeeming than this airport.

For a fleeting moment, I thought I was being too harsh, so I checked the thesaurus to see if I could fine a nicer word for dump. The first words that jumped out were—leave, abandon, discard—as in leave this airport immediately, and how much longer until my flight leaves. But I wasn’t really looking for a verb, so dump will have to suffice.

Maybe I’ve come to expect good airports, because I live in Vancouver, where the local airport authority has invested millions of dollars it receives in Airport Improvement Fees to actually improve the airport.

Now some might argue that the airport has gone a little over the top, but there is no denying that Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is one of the loveliest medium sized airports in the world. In fact, skytrax has named it the best airport in North America, while the Airports Council International ranked it as fourth best in the 15-25 million passenger category, behind only Kuala Lumpur, Zurich, and San Diego. Now, I’m not one of those navel gazing, Best Place on Earth British Columbians, so I know that more improvements can be made to YVR, but it feels comfortable. Look to Asia if you want to know what a quality airport looks like.

For the airport authority, it’s about creating a sense of place. With its massive west coast aboriginal art collection, numerous water features, and green and blue colour palette, visitors know they have landed in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province. LAX, in turn, makes one feel like they have arrived in East LA, rather than the glitzy entertainment capital of the world.

After landing, my Alaska Airlines flight had to hold short of the gate, while the contracted grounds crew finished eating donuts, or whatever it was they were doing that prevented them from directing our plane in, as scheduled. I had plenty of time for my connecting flight to Malaysia, but I had been warned that the flight was busy, so not to delay checking in. To exit Terminal 3, passengers are guided through a long, wide corridor that feels more like a tunnel. The white, sterile-looking tiles on the wall gave the feel of being in a long neglected bathroom. Someone tried to give the corridor some life, by putting smaller, colourful tiles on one wall. It still felt like a bathroom.

Once outside, it was just a short walk to the International Terminal, which is named after Tom Bradley, who was a five-time mayor of Los Angeles. If he were still alive, I think he may be a tad embarrassed with the edifice that bears his name.

I walked inside and fortunately found the Malaysia Airlines check-in counter right away. The long line snaked away from the counter. People inched their baggage-ladened carts forward. It was hard to know where the line began, although the agents did a fairly good job at directing people. I stood at the end of this massive queue for a few minutes, until the people in front of me were directed to the, “Transfer. No baggage” counter, even though they had baggage to check. Since my luggage had already been put through to Kuala Lumpur, I quickly joined them. After checking in, passengers had to queue again, in an equally long line. This time to put their bags through a security scanner. I’m not sure why this can’t be done when the passenger checks-in, but I’m sure the Transportation Security Administration has a logical reason.

The family that had been in front of me joined this new line. The Dad looked at me and said, “welcome to a third world airport!” Presumably he has endured this circus before. Because I had no checked luggage, I was free to go to security. Now I know why they tell people to arrive 12 hours before your flight. I did notice they made it through that ordeal, because I saw them 19 hours later at the baggage carousel in Kuala Lumpur waiting for their luggage.

I needed to get a book for the long flight. I debated whether to look for one before going through security, or after where there may be more shops. My intuition told me to get it beforehand. I spotted a newsagent, and browsed the shelves. I was first drawn to Anderson Coopers’s, Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival. I wonder if he’s ever reported from LAX?

Surprisingly, security was a relative breeze. Since I had more than an hour until my flight boarded, I thought I would browse through the plethora of shops that large international airports are known for. But LAX isn’t like most international airports. I found a currency exchange and a little stand selling duty free, which resembled a hot dog stand on a Manhattan street corner. I wandered along, hoping to stumble upon a large shopping arcade. Instead, I came to a little newsstand that was doing brisk business selling water, and because of the late hour, neck pillows. That was it. A magazine shop, or two and a small restaurant. So this is what it was like in the Soviet Union three or four decades ago.

In some areas, construction was evident. I only hope someone is dreaming big. With nothing to keep us occupied, I joined the other 350 restless people waiting for our flight at the gate for more than hour. Then the gate agent announced that we were now allowed to leave LAX. A spirited rush of people streamed onto the airplane.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Adventure Begins

"Most of my treasured memories of travel are recollections of sitting." - Robert Thomas Allen

An appropriate quote, I thought, considering the journey that stands in front of me. I'm at Vancouver International Airport waiting for my Alaska Airlines flight to Los Angeles. From there I'll connect to my first 5-star flight on Malaysia Airlines, a bum numbing 19+ hour trek to Kuala Lumpur. With the thought of sitting in economy class for this flight, I find myself asking why I didn't pitch a story on the first class service of 5-star airlines (maybe that'll be my next story). I remind myself that it can't be that bad, these are premium airlines after all.

For anyone who has traveled to Asia, and paid attention to the moving map (isn't that the best channel on the plane), the quickest way west is actually to go north. This evening I will spend a couple of hours flying south to California, only to fly north to Asia. In fact, in the wee hours of tomorrow our 747 will fly past the coast of British Columbia. It's a shame that I couldn't just head out and flag down the passing airplane, like hitch-hiking on the highway. It would save me hours in travel time.

Below is a rendering of my westerly trip around the world.

I'll see you in Kuala Lumpur in about 24 hours or so.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

t-48 hours

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
~ Mark Twain

Well, the adventure begins in 48 hours.

Got a message from Malaysia Airlines today. They were kindly holding out for a business class seat for me, but turns out it's sold out for Saturday's flight. They did offer me a seat in business the day before or day after, but since the story I'm writing is about the economy class service of the 5-star airlines, I had to forgo the business class seat in exchange for one in the back of the plane. Oh, the sacrifices I make.

Someone asked me the other day what the weather will be like on this journey. In a, hotter, and really hot.

Carrie and I reminisced a little about a previous trip we both made to Singapore and Dubai. The picture above is of the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai.

I've got a bag to pack, but in a few days I'lll see you out in the world somewhere!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Good to Go

Well, it took more than four months to line this project up, but the last ticket confirmation from Qatar Airways came in last night. This means my around the world adventure begins on Friday, when I will be reporting on the economy class service of four of the world's 5-star airlines for Airways magazine.

Since I need to get to Los Angeles to connect with Malaysia Airlines, my first flight will actually be on Alaska Airlines, which has a 3-star rating; a category that most of the world's airlines fall in. In fact, only three U.S. airlines are rated higher.

The Route

Alaska Airlines 708
Depart: Vancouver 1958
Arrive: Los Angeles 2303
Equipment: Boeing 737-400
Flying Time: 3hrs

Malaysia Airlines 95
Depart: Los Angeles 0140
Arrive: Kuala Lumpur 1215+1
Equipment: Boeing 747-400
Flying Time: 19hrs 30min
(stop in Taipei for petrol)

2 nights in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia Airlines 611
Depart: Kuala Lumpur 0920
Arrive: Singapore 1025
Equipment: Boeing 737-400
Flying Time: 55min

1 night in Singapore

Singapore Airlines 494
Depart: Singapore 1650
Arrive: Dubai 2005
Equipment: Boeing 777-300
Flying Time: 7hrs 15min

2 nights in Dubai

Qatar Airways 101
Depart: Dubai 1130
Arrive: Doha 1130
Equipment: Airbus 330-300
Flying Time: 1hr

2 nights in Doha

Qatar Airways 83
Depart: Doha 0825
Arrive: New York (Newark) 1835
Equipment: Airbus 330-300
Flying Time: 17hrs
(stop in Geneva for petrol)

Cathay Pacific Airways 889
Depart: New York (JFK) 2300
Arrive: Vancouver 0140+1
Equipment: Boeing 747-400
Flying Time: 5hrs 40min

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The idea

Flying around the world in economy class (in just over a week). Sound crazy...or the beginnings of a great adventure? As a contributing editor for Airways magazine, the original idea was to report on the economy class service of the world's 5-star airlines, as rated by SKYTRAX, a London based company that specializes in research for the air transport industry. Established in 1989, SKYTRAX now operates the world's most comprehensive range of airline, airport and air travel customer surveys. Each year, SKYTRAX releases its world airline star rankings.

In 2008, five international airlines were awarded the 5-star status: Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, and Asiana Airlines (Korea). Kingfisher Airlines (India) was awarded 5-stars in the domestic category. In case you're wondering, Air Koryo (North Korea) is the world's only 1-star airline.

Malaysia, Singapore, and Qatar were keen to support my idea. Asiana and Cathay were not interested in participating; however, the latter offers reasonably priced fares from New York to Vancouver. This meant I could still make the project work by reporting on four of the five airlines and choosing a routing that would take me around the world.

With the all the airlines finally onboard, the next challenge was getting each to coordinate the schedule I had offered up.

Vancouver - Los Angeles (TBD)
Los Angeles - Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia Airlines)
Kuala Lumpur - Singapore (Malaysia Airlines)
Singapore - Dubai (Singapore Airlines)
Dubai - Doha (Qatar Airways)
Doha - New York (Qatar Airways)
New York - Vancouver (Cathay Pacific)

If all goes well, in a little more than two weeks time, I will begin my round the world journey.