Friday, January 27, 2012

Business Trip –Pasco / Tri-Cities (PSC) to Orange County (SNA) via San Francisco (SFO) in United Economy and First


United Canadair RJ200
Seat:  3B
Cabin:  Economy
Date:  01/25/12
Scheduled Departure:  5:37pm
Actual Departure:  5:36pm
Scheduled Arrival:  7:25pm
Actual Arrival:  7:16pm

The client actually ferried me from my hotel to the campus for meetings and then to the airport.  It was nicer than dealing with a rental car and provided more time to connect with my client contact.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, the Pasco airport is very small.  It’s the type of airport that has the same person checking you in and managing the gate.  Security at these smaller airports is always a gamble.  Sometimes the TSA agents feel the need to exercise their authority more than their counterparts at larger airports.  I have been through more wandings and pat-downs at airports like Charleston and Huntington than at LAX or DCA.  These agents were very friendly and I passed through security without any issue. 

The airport terminal, all three gates of it, had a central seating area serving the major three airlines present: Alaska, Delta, and United.  I surprised to see that Allegiant has a check-in counter at the airport.  Perhaps they have a seasonal service in the summer to Pasco.  Complimentary Wi-Fi is available however, few power outlets can be found.  The terminal seating area could barely hold two regional jet loads of passengers.  A Delta flight at a neighboring gate was experiencing technical delays and their passengers combined with the United flight were crowding up the area. 

There was no jet bridge to board the smaller regional jet which was a nice treat to walk out to the plane and up a ramp.  United’s CRJ-200’s do not have first class or economy plus seating.  The seat map had blocked out several seats in the forward part of the cabin that it looked like a 1-1 configuration versus a 2-2 configuration.  I was seated in one of those seats but it was a standard set up.  They may reduce some seating on the plane for weight reduction as the flight continues from Denver to San Francisco without refueling in Pasco.  Legroom on the flight was decent and we were about half full. 

The departure was smooth and I managed to fall asleep for most of the flight.  I awoke about 20 minutes outside of San Francisco and from my seat I was able to see the outline of the Golden Gate Bridge and city lights at night.  I’ve always enjoyed flying into large cities at night and seeing all the buildings lit up and the traffic moving on the streets and highways.  The fog was starting to roll into the bay reducing visibility around SFO which thankfully wasn’t impacting our landing approach or time.  We pulled up to the gate a few minutes early allowing me plenty of time to grab some dinner before my connecting flight home.

The United terminal at SFO has a several food options available.  I will usually hit up the soup station for a bagel or oatmeal in the morning for breakfast and the Japanese place for lunch or dinner.  There I tend to always go with the chicken bento box with brown rice as it seems like a relatively healthy option.  I could pass on the shrimp tempura though.  Once finished I had about 20 minutes before my flight was scheduled to board so I headed over to that gate to wait. 

United Airbus 320
Seat:  2F
Cabin:  First
Date:  01/25/12
Scheduled Departure:  8:51pm
Actual Departure:  8:45pm
Scheduled Arrival:  10:19pm
Actual Arrival:  10:00pm

I saw several people on the Pasco flight waiting in the gate area to head to Orange County as well.  The flight load was very light; only 44 seats out of the 144 were occupied.  My upgrade cleared earlier in the weak and I was looking forward to my more spacious first class seat.  The gate agent started boarding the flight 30 minutes prior to departure and was able to load the plane quickly.  Everyone was in their seats waiting 15 minutes prior to the departure time.  As passengers boarded the purser offered first class passengers drinks and hung up all of our jackets.

We pushed back about 15 minutes early and were number 2 in line for takeoff.  I was grateful for an early departure so I can get home that much sooner and into my own bed.  Once the plane had leveled off a bit drinks were offered in a quick but courteous fashion.  A snack basket followed with options like bananas, Toblerone, chips, granola bars, and a few other items.  Overall, there was nothing outstanding to note about the service on this flight. 

The in-flight entertainment was a couple “short subjects” – Subpurgatory and a genealogy special with Gwyneth Paltrow.  The other entertainment on the flight was watching the guy next to me head bob while he snoozed and listening to his rather loud snoring.  It wasn’t as fun as seeing the middle-aged women hunt and peck on her laptop on the previous flight but it was still entertaining.  I just hope that I don’t snore like that when I am sleeping on a plane. 

Before I knew it we were already starting our decent into SNA.  It was a quick flight that ended a very productive trip and best of all an early arrival!  When the plane rolled up to the gate I was disheartened that I was at the very far end of the terminal, the farthest gate from where my car was parked.   

Hotel Review – Red Lion Richland Hanford House


I typically book Hilton brands when I travel for work but this time the University actually purchased my airfare and hotel.  They selected the Red Lion Richland Hanford House as the best rate.  I’ve seen the Red Lion brand around but this was my first time staying at one. 

The hotel’s website notes a complimentary shuttle to and from the Pasco airport.  I called the hotel once I landed and was informed that they would call a taxi for me which was waiting outside the airport by the time I left the terminal.  The ride took about 15 minutes to get to the hotel and thankfully the hotel paid the taxi driver when I arrived.

The lobby was rather spacious and the hotel has quite a large amount of conference and meeting rooms.  My guess is that they have the largest flat floor space for events in the Tri-Cities area.  Check-n was quick and I was on my way to my first floor room.  The floor plan is a tad bit humorous as it looks like a question mark on its side. 

My hotel room was decent although dated.  Two queen beds, a work station, flat screen TV, and dresser were provided.  The closet has an iron and board which is a plus.  Two feet outside the floor to ceiling window was a parking lot.  The bathroom must have been recently remodeled as it was very nice and included decent products.   The funniest part of the room was the thermostat which must have been from the 50’s as it didn’t even have degrees marked on the metal dial, just warmer or colder.  This presented a few problems for me in regulating my temperature at night. 




A breakfast buffet was offered for $7.95 and included eggs, breakfast meats, potatoes, cereal, and drinks.  It wasn’t the greatest value but it did work for me in the morning.  Their photos advertising the breakfast buffet were very misleading though.  Free Wi-Fi is included on a daily basis.  Internet speed was good. 

I still prefer my Hilton brands but if the price is right for these hotels and they are near a client, I may have to opt for one again.  I would equate it to a lower end / older style Hampton Inn.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Business Trip – Orange County (SNA) to Pasco / Tri-Cities (PSC) via Salt Lake City (SLC) in Delta Economy


Delta Airbus 319
Seat:  11D
Cabin:  Economy
Date:  01/24/12
Scheduled Departure:  4:35pm
Actual Departure:  4:29pm
Scheduled Arrival:  7:25pm
Actual Arrival:  7:23pm

I had a plan arriving at John Wayne Airport to park my car in the B parking structure so that I could access it easily on my United return the following night.  The airport has recently invested a fair amount of money in creating a parking management system that displays the number of spaces available on each level of the structures.  According to that sign, 15 spaces were left in the structure which would work for me.  Unfortunately, no spaces were actually available in the structure so I had to circle around again and find other parking.  I ultimately found parking in the A structure which just means a long walk late at night back to my car. 

Security was a breeze in the afternoon with only 3 people in front of me in line.  The Delta gate was a short walk past the checkpoint and I was able to sit down, hit up the free wifi, and get some work done before boarding.  I rarely fly Delta as I have never been a fan of the airline or their destination.  For a while I was flying quite a few of their regional jets in and out of Cincinnati for work which meant my long legs were always cramped and pushing into the seat in front.  This mainline flight should be decent though. 

The boarding area was relatively empty which indicated a very light load on the flight.  Boarding was quick and we all were seated before our scheduled departure time with perhaps a third of seats occupied.  Luckily for me, I was the only one in my three right side seats so I scooted over to the middle and spread out.  We waited a while after pushback before taxiing to the runway as other airplanes were heading out as well.  One of the drawbacks of SNA is that airplane traffic builds up quickly.  Once on the runway, the engines ramped up to full speed while the brakes remained on and then we were off and in the air on the slightly more than normal incline typical of SNA flights. 

The first part of the flight was a little bumpy but once we smoothed out drink service began.  Distribution of beverages was speedy given the light passenger load.  We also received a small packet of peanuts which I am not used to on my usual United flights.  I was able to get a good bit of work on my presentation before we started our decent about an hour and twenty minutes after takeoff.  The plane was equipped with GoGo wireless internet, however, I didn’t feel the charge to use it was worth it given the short duration of the flight.  

The pilots performed a smooth landing and we reached the gate a few minutes early.  My connecting time in SLC was scheduled for 40 minutes which worried me slightly but Delta.com indicated that my flight to Pasco was going to be out of the next gate.  A quick check of the airport monitors after deplaning changed my planning.  The gate had been switched from the C concourse to the B concourse and was showing a half-hour delay. 

The delay would give me enough time to grab something to eat and walk to the other gate.  One of my favored chain food outlets in airport is the Wolfgang Puck Express where I get some butternut squash soup or a chicken ceasar salad, pricey as most things in airports.  When I went up to order my salad I was informed that they didn’t have lettuce….  How do you run out of lettuce?  I settled for a bagel sandwich place on the B concourse which may have been a healthier option anyway.  The toasted bagel did make the sandwich enjoyable. 

I booted up my computer once settled at gate B13 and was waiting for boarding.  About the time we were supposed to board, the gate agents made an announcement about why our flight was delayed.  The crew scheduled to be on our plane was stuck in Reno on their delayed flight.  Delta operations (rather SkyWest operations since it is an RJ flight) called in a new crew which was supposed to be at the gate within another 10 minutes.  10 minutes later, another announcement indicated that we may be delayed by up to an hour because operations called the cabin crew, but not a pilot until much later.  I would think that would be something important to do at the same time as the rest of the crew.  So now we have to wait for the original pilot to arrive on the Reno flight and get us to Pasco.  We were given the ok to board the plane at 8:45pm before the pilot even landed.  I will give props to Delta for keeping everyone informed even though the news wasn’t the greatest. 

Delta Canadair RJ900
Seat:  10B
Cabin:  Economy
Date:  01/24/12
Scheduled Departure:  8:02pm
Actual Departure:  9:10pm
Scheduled Arrival:  8:48pm
Actual Arrival:  10:09pm

The CRJ filled up fast with passengers as we were all in a hurry to get to Pasco.  The plane had about 15 open seats and unfortunately, I was not next to one of them.  I usually prefer window seats as I won’t be disturbed by passengers climbing over me but on regional jets I prefer the aisle seat.  It allows me to stretch and lean out into the aisle for more room and more workspace – until the drink cart rolls by.  Delta has first class on this regional jet with 12 seats in a 1-2 configuration.  The rest of the economy cabin has decent seat pitch in the 2-2 configuration which surprised me.  My previous commuter flights on Delta had very little legroom.  My seat had nearly as much space as economy plus on United branded regional jets. 

The captain eventually appeared at the cabin door and completed his safety checks before we pushed back.  Departure was delayed even more as we had to de-ice the wings.  It was a cold night, no snow or rain though.  We were number one for departure and then airborne.  The crew were all nice and cheery even though they were called in from reserve.  They were also sincerely apologetic for the delay we experience.  Apparently it was a mechanical issue on the inbound Reno aircraft where they were leaking fuel.  Not a good thing. 

The flight time was scheduled for one hour and twenty three minutes wheels up to wheels down.  Strong headwinds added a bit more to that time and I just hope we can land by 10pm so I can get to my hotel.  Drink service was quick although the cart and the attendants kept bumping into my shoulders. 

The approach to the airport was bumpy due to some pretty gusty winds.  The plane rolled around a bit before getting closer to the ground and a good landing by the pilots.  Snow was still on the ground from the recent “snowmagedon” which hit the Pacific Northwest and it was cold outside.  As we were taxiing to the gate I called my hotel, the Red Lion Richland to arrange the courtesy shuttle.  They actually didn’t have a shuttle but they hired a taxi for me instead. 

The Pasco airport is another small town airport that has 3 or four gates at most.  The waiting area could maybe seat 60 people.  It only took me a couple minutes to get from the gate to the curb outside where the taxi was waiting for me.  At least the timing was perfect for my ride.  More on my experience at the Red Lion Hanford House Richland, WA to come. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Israel Trip Report Part 10 – United First Class Denver to Orange County


Trip Report – Israel 2011
  1. United #1273: Orange County, CA (SNA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  2. United #90: Newark, NJ (EWR) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)
  3. Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
  4. Tour of Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra, and Acre
  5. Tour of Petra
  6. Tel Aviv
  7. Grand Beach Hotel Review
  8. United #91:  Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  9. United #311:  Newark, NJ (EWR) to Denver, CO (DEN)
  10. United #403:  Denver, CO (DEN) to Orange County, CA (SNA)
Part 10 – United First Class Denver to Orange County

United Airbus 320
Seat:  2A
Cabin:  First
Date:  01/18/12
Scheduled Departure:  12:26pm
Actual Departure:  12:23pm
Scheduled Arrival:  1:51pm
Actual Arrival:  1:41pm

I was feeling worse and worse as the morning progressed.  I waited at the gate after visiting the lounge and grabbed my seat quickly once on board.  I don’t have much to say about this flight as I was asleep before we took off and only woke up when we were on final approach into Orange County.  We arrived about ten minutes early and I was anxious to grab a taxi and get home.  All I had to do was head to the baggage claim to wait for my bag to get off the plane.  I headed downstairs and waited.  And kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting until all the bags were claimed.  The United luggage agent asked what flight I was waiting for and informed me that all the bags were unloaded from the Denver flight. 

I knew that my luggage would get lost.  I rarely if ever check a bag and I shouldn’t have checked it this time.  At least my bag wasn’t lost on the way to vacation!  The agent was able to pull up the tracking record for my bag and found out that it was send to San Diego (SAN) instead of Orange County (SNA).  I suppose it is an easy enough of a mistake to make but I still wasn’t happy.  The funny part is that my bag would first have to be sent to San Francisco before it could get to Orange County.  I would be able to pick up my bag the next day. 

Although the vacation was great, I was ready to be home in my bed and visit the doctor the next day to check on my ear infection.  

Israel Trip Report Part 9 – United First Class Newark to Denver


Trip Report – Israel 2011
  1. United #1273: Orange County, CA (SNA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  2. United #90: Newark, NJ (EWR) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)
  3. Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
  4. Tour of Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra, and Acre
  5. Tour of Petra
  6. Tel Aviv
  7. Grand Beach Hotel Review
  8. United #91:  Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  9. United #311:  Newark, NJ (EWR) to Denver, CO (DEN)
  10. United #403:  Denver, CO (DEN) to Orange County, CA (SNA)
Part 9 – United First Class Newark to Denver

United Airbus 320
Seat:  1E
Cabin:  First
Date:  01/18/12
Scheduled Departure:  7:00am
Actual Departure:  6:57am
Scheduled Arrival:  9:21a
Actual Arrival:  9:09a

Once my pack was rechecked through to Orange County I had to change terminals at Newark with via an airtrain and then go through security at Terminal A to make my United flight.  I was able to pop into the United Club and was hoping that they would have a shower for use but alas no.  I felt sorry for those sitting next to me on the remaining flights. 

The flight to Denver was full and boarded started early.  The first class cabin on the United 320 was standard and my bulkhead aisle seat felt a little cramped in the knees and feet.  I was still feeling a bit off from my earlier flight and the bad omelet.  I had a glass of water before departure and soon enough we were taxiing and in the air. 

Breakfast service started about 30 minutes after takeoff with orange juice.  On the ground, drinks on United flights are always served in plastic cups but once in the air the glassware is broken out.  It’s a plus that they also hold more juice, water, or wine.  I usually select the warm option / eggs for breakfast on these flights bit my poor experience with eggs on the previous flight made me opt for the cereal and fruit plate.  This option was the better one with enough food to satisfy my stomach and a good variety.  The fruit was fresh, the yogurt tasty, the croissant warm, and the cereal a good finish.  I may start opting for this selection more although they do not cater enough of these meals on these flights.  They typically will have only two or three meals in a cabin that seats 12. 

Cereal and Fruit

After my tray was removed I reclined my seat and before I knew it we were landing in Denver.  Overall, the service on the flight was decent with nothing outstanding.  The one plus of the flight was the early arrival into Denver which gave me more time to relax in the United Club before heading home to Orange County.  

Israel Trip Report Part 8 – Continental BusinessFirst Tel Aviv to Newark


Trip Report – Israel 2011
  1. United #1273: Orange County, CA (SNA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  2. United #90: Newark, NJ (EWR) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)
  3. Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
  4. Tour of Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra, and Acre
  5. Tour of Petra
  6. Tel Aviv
  7. Grand Beach Hotel Review
  8. United #91:  Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  9. United #311:  Newark, NJ (EWR) to Denver, CO (DEN)
  10. United #403:  Denver, CO (DEN) to Orange County, CA (SNA)


Part 5 – Continental BusinessFirst Tel Aviv to Newark

Continental Boeing 777-200ER
Seat:  2L
Cabin:  BusinessFirst
Date: 01/17/12
Scheduled Departure:  11:10pm
Actual Departure:  11:16pm
Scheduled Arrival:  4:19am (01/18/12)
Actual Arrival:  4:45am (01/18/12)

Boeing 777-200

The flight home boarded on time and I was first on board to head to my BusinessFirst window seat in the second row of the cabin.  My jacket was taken and hung in the closer even before my bag was placed in the overhead bin.  Menus were promptly distributed and drinks proffered and I selected champagne.  As the flight was departing late at night the flight attendants asked for our dinner selection before the doors on the plane were closed. 

Menu Page 1

Menu Page 2

Passengers were still boarding the place as two ground maintenance staff entered the flight deck.  Soon after one of the pilots headed farther back into the plane with a set of manuals – that is never a good sign.  It turns out that four of the eight bathrooms on the plane were not working.  I talked later to one of the pilots who explained that there was a considerable debate about proceeding forward with the flight given the malfunction but the flight was completely full and they had no idea how long a repair would take.  I’m glad they decided to proceed with the flight. 

Shortly after takeoff the drink and dinner service started.  Warm nuts were served with my glass of Cote-du-Rhone.  The nuts had too many walnuts for my taste and the wine was good but very tannic.  The salad with mozzarella and tomatoes followed quickly.  The salad and dressing were good, however, the cheese and salmon appetizer was rather inedible. 

First Course Salad

I selected the herbed of chicken provençale for the entrée.  The chicken was actually very good.  Typically airline chicken can be rubbery but the jus helped keep the chicken breast moist.  The white wine risotto was tasty as well, although, it was a little stiff to be a true risotto.  The greens were ok and I avoided the sautéed mushrooms.  The description included leaks but I didn’t taste any in the dish.  I was a little disappointed that no garlic bread was available on the flight, and the bread service overall was lacking as the attendants only came by once to offer something. 

Herbed Chicken Provencale

The cheese plate included was a nice break after dinner and included some blue cheese, swiss, brie, and chevre. 

Cheese Plate

The ice cream sundae cart passed through to finish off the dinner service and I opted for fudge and cherries.  The customer service of the staff was decent.  They were professional but not friendly or approachable – similar to domestic flights. 

Ice Cream Sundae

Dinner service finished up in about 2 hours which left almost 10 hours remaining in the flight.  The seat was the same as on my flight to Tel Aviv so I reclined it all the way.  The second row of seats has a much smaller foot space than the first row.   It was actually very cramped for me when lying down to try and have both feet in the space which required that I had my legs bent most of the time.  I would definitely recommend selecting a seat in row 1 on Continental’s 777.  I was able to fall asleep quickly and was passed out for about 7 hours. 

I woke up about three hours out from Newark with my sinuses and ears plugged up.  I had hoped my ear infection had cleared up but the pain was making me doubt it.  I watched a few of the Pixar movies available on the AVOD system while waiting for breakfast.  Meal service started about 1.5 hours before landing with two plates.  The first includes yogurt, granola, fruit, and tomatoes, cheese, and avocado spread.  I avoided the salmon but the rest was good. 

First Breakfast Course

I opted for the hot meal, a sun-dried tomato omelet with potatoes and zucchini.  While the potatoes and zucchini were good, the omelet was disgusting.  The texture, taste, and consistency were all bad.  The omelet had so much oil and butter that about two tablespoons of liquid were at the bottom of the dish.  It ended up giving me an upset stomach. 

The Bad Eggs

The flight landed smoothly albeit late.  I was able to deplane quickly as I was at the front of the plane and headed towards passport control.  There was another international flight that landed about the same time as ours from India and the line to get through passport was already long.  Only two border agents were working at 5am.  Thankfully, two more agents arrived within 30 minutes and started to process the line faster.  I had to grab my suitcase once through passport control to then proceed through customs.  Although I had no food items on me I was selected to go through the extra screening line adding another 15 minutes of waiting before getting out of the secured area.  My bag was tagged all the way through to Orange County but I did have to recheck it at a transfer desk.  I had a suspicion that something would go wrong with the transfer.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Israel Trip Report Part 6 – Tel Aviv


Trip Report – Israel 2011
  1. United #1273: Orange County, CA (SNA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  2. United #90: Newark, NJ (EWR) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)
  3. Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
  4. Tour of Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra, and Acre
  5. Tour of Petra
  6. Tel Aviv
  7. Grand Beach Hotel Review
  8. United #91:  Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  9. United #311:  Newark, NJ (EWR) to Denver, CO (DEN)
  10. United #403:  Denver, CO (DEN) to Orange County, CA (SNA)


Part 6 – Tel Aviv and Overall Impressions

I love rain.  I love listening to it hit the windows of my house while I’m drinking red wine or hot chocolate.  I even like driving in the rain.  I hate being stuck in the rain, with a small umbrella that breaks from the wind and no shelter in quick walking distance…

The morning started off well enough.  Even though I had hopes of sleeping in I was awake by 7am and relaxing in my hotel room.  The weather outside looked decent but gray clouds were approaching in the distance.  My iPhone did say rain was likely.  I watched some TV while starting to pack up my things.  I decided to check my bag again so we will see if it makes it home with me.  A light drizzle had started by the time I headed downstairs around 9am to check out.  With my suitcase at the hotel and my laptop, iPad, and backpack with me, I headed out into Tel Aviv hoping that the rain wouldn’t be too bad. 

Walking Around Tel Aviv

I didn’t have an agenda for the day at all.  My only plan was to walk around the city and explore what I could.  I wanted to get a feel of Tel Aviv and some of the neighborhoods in town.  Starting east I meandered through side streets and main boulevards looking into the variety of shops along the way.  I tried to pet a few of the cats walking around but they weren’t as friendly as the ones in the tourist spots.  Heading up Ben Gurion Boulevard I then turned onto Iben Gvirol and walked all the way down to the Yarkon River.  From there I backtracked and then headed east on Jabotinsky then down south on Weizman.  By that time the rain was falling at a steady pace and my pants, jacket, and backpack were going from damp to wet.  Thankfully a mall was nearby so I passed through the security checkpoint and went inside to find a seat.  Unfortunately, every seat I could see was taken so I walked around the mall to see what was inside.  The ubiquitous McDonald’s was present along with a Toys ‘R Us.  On the lower level a small café/ice cream/pretzel stand had open seating so I grabbed a tea to warm me up and worked on a blog. 

People watching is always on of the best parts of traveling; whether it’s sipping a glass of wine on the streets of Bordeaux, eating some ice cold gelato in Nice, enjoying a beer in Rome, or drinking some hot tea in a mall in Tel Aviv.  I couldn’t understand the conversations at all but I could understand the generalities from a couple arguing, a toddler crying because she dropped her pacifier and the frustrated dad pulling her along, of the family entertaining their kid on one of those coin-operated merry-go-rounds.  While that child was smiling as he spun around looking at the blinking lights and listening to the music, I was cringing inside as it was playing “It’s A Small World” over and over.  And yes, the song has been stuck in my head most of the day.  I wonder if Disney licensed that song to that manufacturer.

The rain abated and I headed back out again with a destination now in mind, Jaffa.  I passed by the Tel Aviv Art Museum and eventually passed a pasta place on the street that sounded perfect for lunch.  A bowl of gnocchi in tomato cream sauce gave me back some strength to keep walking towards the old city.  There was a noticeable shift in building scale and composition walking along Jaffa road as the multistory buildings transitioned into two- or three-story older structures.  Small shops lined the streets on both side so packed with goods that would make a fire marshal faint.  It seemed as if there were distinct districts including appliances, house wear, repair, tailoring, and high-end fashion. 


The highlight, and highpoint, of Jaffa is St. Peter’s Church and the neighboring square.  The church was closed but walking around the square then down the narrow walkways and steeps stairs to the old port was fun.  There is something that I really enjoy about these types of settlements built on terraces up a hillside.  The square on top has a rather odd looking fountain with figures that look more like aliens than kids to me. 

Jaffa

Creepy Fountain

From this vantage point you can see the Tel Aviv skyline along the beach as you look north.  A considerable amount of the high rise development is along the beaches with commercial towers behind.  I was also able to see the dark clouds approaching in the distance and what looked like a fair amount of rain falling over the sea.  Fearing a heavy downpour I headed down from the top of Jaffa and back towards my hotel.  The clouds did move in faster than I anticipated and I was caught in a deluge.  My umbrella failed and I was soaked through all layers of clothing.  I was able to find shelter at a parking lot pay station but by that time the damage was done.  Thankfully, I was near a major street and eventually flagged a taxi to take me back to the hotel. 

Ominous Skyline

Looking back on the trip I can say I packed a lot in a little amount of time.  The three tours I was on provided a quick view of some of the highlights of Israel and the neighboring areas.  There is still so much more to see and experience here and I know I will be coming back.  I have to at least do a wine tour to sample the Israeli and Jordanian vintages.  I would like to stay a few days in Haifa and learn more about that city and the Carmelite traditions there.  My best recommendation would be that if you are ever planning on coming to Israel, you must find a way to make it to Petra and experience the rose-red city carved into the cliffs. 

I spent a few hours at my hotel trying to dry off and stay warm before heading to the airport.  Ultimately I decided to change clothes to get dry.  It was a wise choice.  The taxi picked me up at 7:30 and I was at the airport by 8:00pm.  It actually took longer and was harder to get out of Israel than into Israel.  Perhaps being a single male traveling alone with no friends or family in Israel set them off but I had a long round of questions just to get past the first round of security and check-in.  I was number 3 in line and once the ticket counter opened I got all three of my boarding passes and an invitation to the Dan Lounge prior to boarding. 

Once past the check-in counters came the next round of security.  I’m glad I got arrived at the airport when I did as the line behind me kept growing.  It didn’t help that three passengers in front of me kept the security line at a standstill for 20 minutes as their belongings and ID were checked again and again.  An Israeli woman in front of me started complaining and arguing with the lead agent which is never a good thing.  Eventually I was able to go through and after having my belongings swapped and analyzed I received my exit stamp and headed to the lounge. 

The Dan Lounge is a contract lounge utilized by multiple airlines.  It is not very large and I can imagine it filling up quite fast.  The décor is quite nice; great attention to detail in the finishes and just enough screening to separate different seating areas while maintaining a view of the airport.  The food and snacks available are limited to some breads, veggies, and hummus.  It is a step up from the United Clubs I am used to but not by much.  Drinks were all canned or bottled in a self-serve fridge and two wines were available for you to pour.  Both were Israeli wines, one white and one red.  I poured myself a healthy glass of the red and found it very mellow.  It didn’t have much of an aroma but the light fruit lingered on my palate for a long time.  The lounge also has free wireless internet in 30 minute blocks.

Dan Lounge Ben Gurion Airport, C Gates

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Israel Trip Report Part 7 – Grand Beach Tel Aviv Hotel Review


Trip Report – Israel 2011
  1. United #1273: Orange County, CA (SNA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  2. United #90: Newark, NJ (EWR) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)
  3. Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
  4. Tour of Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra, and Acre
  5. Tour of Petra
  6. Tel Aviv
  7. Grand Beach Hotel Review
  8. United #91:  Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  9. United #311:  Newark, NJ (EWR) to Denver, CO (DEN)
  10. United #403:  Denver, CO (DEN) to Orange County, CA (SNA)


Part 7 – Grand Beach Tel Aviv Hotel Review

When originally looking for a hotel in Tel Aviv I was surprised at how expensive many of the options were, in particular, my go to choice of a Hilton Brand.  My HiltonHonors points were not an option as those will be used for an upcoming trip to Australia in April.  That left me with navigating through the options on Expedia to find a decent option.  The majority of the hotels are located along the beach between the old city and Sde Dov airport.  For the price including free wifi, the Grand Beach Tel Aviv seemed like the best option available. 

The cost to get to the hotel from Ben Gurion International Airport was about 130 NIS and took about 35 minutes.  The exterior aesthetics of the hotel leave much to be desired.  The design instantly says 50’s/60’s hotel tower construction with few welcoming elements.  The hotel lobby is covered with stone and marble and lacks warmth.  The only soft components in the lobby include some round ottoman style chairs and a rug.  A café area is up 5 steps with some views towards the beach across a vacant property. 

Check-in was quick after providing my reservation and passport.  The staff made copies of my passport and handed me a card key for a room on the 10th floor.  The hotel has a total of 12 floors with a restaurant on the second floor and a pool on the 12th.  Given the rain forecast for most of my staff, the pool was not looking like an enjoyable option. 

My room on the 10th floor was a good size.  It was larger than what I’m used to in Europe but smaller than most standard US hotels.  A small workstation with a fridge in the pedestal and chair were against the wall with a soft lounge chair in the room that looked like it was from the 70’s.  I try to avoid soft hotel room furniture if I can.  Perhaps it’s just paranoia but I don’t feel like those every get cleaned properly to prevent whatever a previous guest had from getting onto me.  A six-drawer dressing was below a flat screen TV. 

10th Floor Room

The bed was a very hard queen size mattress.  Thankfully, only two pillows were provided which is one more than I need.  I just don’t get why a bed would need more pillows than that yet most of the hotels I stay at have four to six there waiting for me.  In the end I move them off the bed and onto the dresser or a table and do my best to keep them off the floor, but I can’t imagine that every guest in the hotel provides the same courtesy.  Who knows what may transfer over from the floor to the pillow?  Another hotel pet peeve of mine is the minimal bedding some hotels have.  Often it will just be a light comforter on the bed that serves as sheet, blanket, and bedspread as was the case and the Grand Beach.  In my mind, this is one area that more is better.  I often find it difficult to sleep with the weight or heat of the all-purpose comforter as opposed to a lighter sheet which means my sleep isn’t the best.  The other issue I had with the hotel was that the initial comforter on the bed had a few small stains on it that looked like blood.  Thankfully they changed it out after a call to the front desk. 

The closet was behind two sliding mirrored doors, or so I thought.  Only one of the doors actually moved, the other remained stationary as a wall was directly behind it.  The closet contained a safe and a few more drawers below.  The items missing from what I expected were an iron and ironing board which seems to be a common occurrence.  I’m one to always unpack my clothes and get my shirts all ironed and ready so I don’t have to worry about it the rest of the week.  It’s not a major gripe, I just like the convenience of having right there.

The bathroom was on the smaller side, but still larger than European standards.  The products provided (hand soap, body wash, shampoo) were good and were replaced each morning no matter how little I used of each.  The bath towels were thin and rough.  They were not the most comfortable to be used but were effective.  My biggest complaints in the bathroom were related to the shower/tub.  One the shower head, which no longer is usable was crusted over with a bit of lime and rust.  The faucet instead was connected to one of those hand held spray units with a holder than was no higher than 3’ off the floor.  It’s just not my preference to use one of those hand units – I feel like I am doing the work rather than the water.  The divider between the shower/tub and the bathroom, however, was the main issue.  Lately while traveling internationally the hotels I have stayed in seem to prefer the partial glass divider which has a pivot point where it hits the wall.  Typically these panels are 2’-6” to 3’ which only partially block the water spray especially with a handheld unit which means water ends up all over the bathroom floor.  I understand that this type of divider provides a classier look than a shower curtain but costs less than a full glass partition.  For me, the value of the better look or the cost savings are not worth it.  Or, I could just be inept at showering. 
Bathroom

One day after returning from a tour I walked in to find that the sink faucet was leaking and had flooded the trashcan below and then spilled out and covered about half of the bathroom floor.  I think the faucet lever was left on just slightly causing the water to leak out as it didn’t happen again the whole time I was there.  I used all but one of my towels to soak up the water and the following day the cleaning staff shorted me a couple towels which were provided after a call to the front desk. 

The walls in the hotel are very thin.  I was able to hear conversations in the hallway and in the next room easily.  Kids were running down the hall at night and renovations to the elevator were underway.  It was not the quietest hotel.  When I first checked-in it was quiet but that was at the start of the Sabbath and most of the city and people shut down.  It wasn’t until Sabbath ended Saturday night that I realized the noise level in and out of the hotel that I could hear from my room.  I didn’t even realize the first day that the hotel was on the flight path for Sde Dov airport since no commercial flights are scheduled Friday night into Saturday.  When I did start hearing the planes I was surprised.  Given that I am an airplane geek this noise wasn’t as bad as the rest. 

The View

Overall, while I found issues with the room and amenities provided, the staff and service provided were great.  Staff promptly responded to requests and answered questions in a friendly manner.  The free wireless internet was a little slow from the room but I was able to post blogs, answer emails, and update Facebook without much frustration. 

Will I stay here again?  No.  Would I recommend this hotel?  Maybe.  It depends on what you look for in hotels.  For me, I tend to place a higher value on the items I took issue with and would be willing to pay more to avoid them.  For others, the price may be the overriding prerogative and this hotel may be perfect.  It was the most affordable option I found with typically expensive amenities like breakfast and wifi included in the cost.  The location in the city worked for me, and the staff were great.   

Gotta Love the Classy Ziploc Bag

Monday, January 16, 2012

Israel Trip Report Part 5 – Tour of Petra


Trip Report – Israel 2011
  1. United #1273: Orange County, CA (SNA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  2. United #90: Newark, NJ (EWR) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)
  3. Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
  4. Tour of Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra, and Acre
  5. Tour of Petra
  6. Tel Aviv
  7. Grand Beach Hotel Review
  8. United #91:  Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  9. United #311:  Newark, NJ (EWR) to Denver, CO (DEN)
  10. United #403:  Denver, CO (DEN) to Orange County, CA (SNA)


Part 5 – Tour of Petra


Petra was amazing.  I don’t think I can adequately describe the experience with words.  The early morning start, the fairly high cost of the tour, the American tourists in the group that were a bit clueless, and the long day were all worth it. 

Petra is located in Jordan, near the southern point of Israel.  The tour I booked from Tel Aviv included a round trip flight to the Israeli city of Eilat.  From there we would be taken to the border with Jordan and then to Petra.  My alarm was set for 4:30am to allow me enough time to actually wake up, get ready, and head over to the airport.  Unfortunately, the people in the next room either woke up at 4am or were just getting in at 4am.  The thin walls in this hotel passed their noise easily so awoke even earlier than I wanted.  A quick cab ride to the Sde Dov Airport and I was at the airport gate 20 minutes before the airport actually opened.  Thankfully the weather in Tel Aviv was not as cold or wet as it had been the previous few days. 

Sde Dov Airport is a small central city airport.  When I say small, it’s like one of those airports that has the same person checking you in, manning the gate, and handling the luggage.  It was similar to airports I’ve been to in San Luis Obispo (SBP), Sonoma (STS), and Huntington (HTS).  I was booked on Akria, an airline I had never heard of before, which services Israel domestic locations and has some international service to Europe.  Their fleet consists of turboprops and a few jets, the largest is a 757.  I was assuming we would be flying a turboprop given the small size of the airport but was given an aisle in row 26 when checking in.  The terminal is not near the aircraft so once we passed through the gate everyone boarded a bus which drove us past a few IDF C-130 Hercules, small private planes, and then eventually to the Arkia plane, a Embraer E-195.  The plane had a standard 2-2 configuration and decent interiors, however, definite signs of wear and tear wear present on the seats and overhead bins.  The airline utilizes the doors for all of the overhead bins as sellable advertisement space.  It makes financial sense to me but that is a lot of other peoples branding to be on a plane. 

Arkia E-195

The flight was only in the air about 35 minutes.  Take off was smooth down the one runway at the airport.  There is no taxiway at Sde Dov so the plane has to head down the runway then turn around at the end to take off.  We looped around over Tel Aviv and passed through the cloud layer on our way.  Drink service was quick on the 25% full flight and they passed out prepackaged chocolate croissants which were tasty (picture at the end).  Landing in Eilat reminded me of two airports I’ve flown into back in the States.  One side of the city felt like we were landing in Vegas with the large hotels and mountains in the distance.  The other side felt like we were landing in El Paso due to the landscape, brightly colored retail buildings, and cramped roads. 

One problem with booking the tour online, and even a follow up call to confirm my reservation, was that the details about what would happen once I arrived in Eilat were nonexistent.  Two other people also made the Tel Aviv flight for the tour as well, a couple Texans.  We banded together figuring that they wouldn’t leave three people there at the airport.  About 10 minutes later a white minivan pulled up with our driver and we hoped on board hoping we were all settled to go.  After picking up a few more tourists we headed to the Jordanian border crossing.  Similar to the visit to Bethlehem, this crossing wouldn’t be simple. 

Our Israeli driver wouldn’t accompany us through the border but merely collected 55 USD for the border crossing fee and then showed us where to go to get our passports stamped on the Israeli side.   Our group, now totaling 10, walked between the two border posts passing into Jordan where our Jordanian driver met us, collected our passports and processed them.  Now I have another country’s stamp in my passport!  We all hopped into the van and jolted off towards our destination.  The drive would take about two hours to get into the mountains where Petra is located.  Driving along the highway gave us tremendous views of the mountains and deserts.  The stones in the mountains have black bandings running through them highlighting different mineral deposits.  In Jordan, as in Israel, the painted line demarking lanes and directions seem to be merely suggestions rather than rules.  We were often in two lanes or on the other side of the road during the trip. 


We kept increasing in elevation on the main road and eventually turned onto the connecting road to Petra.  About an hour and a half after we left the border crossing we had a rest stop and a tourist shop in the middle of nowhere.  It never fails that on every tour they take us to a shop they are friends with so we can purchase something while using the facilities.  It was a surprise to me as well as the rest of the people on the tour that there were isolated patches of snow on the ground.  It was incredibly cold up there.  Eilat was projected to be in the 70s and with the wind chill in the mountains I’d say we were at freezing temperatures.  It was so cold that the two ladies from Texas who were the clueless ones purchased jackets at the shop for $75 USD each.  They were not the greatest jackets by far.  I walked through the store but didn’t find anything interesting and decided to wait outside in the sun and get some heat.  Outside was a pack of puppies and their mom who all loved tourists and were begging for food from us.  One of the puppies even knew to sit on command so he got more food than the others. 

Jordanian Puppies

Another 30 minutes on the road and we stopped at a scenic viewing point above Petra.  We couldn’t see the city but rather the mountains and canyon ranges were the city was built.  The scenery was incredible.  The shape of the rocks, the scale of the mountains and depth of the ravines was impressive.  It was only a small taste of what was to come. 

Panoramic View

The driver hurried us back inside the van so we could warm up and head the rest of the way to Petra.  The road descended through small towns with sharp turns and oncoming traffic.  Once we started seeing larger and classier hotels along the side of the road we knew we were getting close.  We drove through Wadi Musa to the visitor’s center parking area at Petra where we met the Bedouin guide who would take us town into the ancient city.  He was the best guide out of all the guides I’ve had so far on this trip.  Even just a couple minutes walk down towards Petra and stone carvings in the cliff can already be seen. 

One of the "Three Water Canisters"

The path to enter and exit the site is through the Siq, pronounced “sick”, which a narrow gorge running into the city.  This pathway was used for religious processions as well as bringing water from the aquifers or collecting rain water off the cliff and bringing it into cisterns.  Carvings and places for idols are found along the cliff walls.  The gods of the Nabataean people were once displayed in niches along the cliff.  Petra was a great trading power reaching to Egypt, Greece, Syria, and even China.  The Nabataeans had their own unique art and architectural style but also brought in influence from their trading partners so their buildings and designs would have a Greek pediment for example. 

The Siq

The width of the passage varies and twists and turns as you descend along the path.  Around each turn there is something new and the sense of anticipation builds for seeing Petra.  The city has been described as the “rose-red city” due to the iron oxide within the rock given everything a redish hue.  Farther into the canyon the wind started to pick up as the passage way narrowed.  The crisp breeze was welcomed and heightened the anticipation even more.  Finally after passing stone reliefs of camels caravans we rounded the last corner and saw hints of the Treasury past the end of the Siq.

A Hint of What is to Come

The Siq ends into another large canyon within the mountains and directly in front of the exit is the imposing stone face of the Treasury.  I have seen it in multiple films and pictures but to see it in person is something else entirely.  The size and scale of work needed to complete the carving and remove the rock is incredible.  It is a breathtaking sight even through some of the façade has received damage from erosion, earthquakes, and bullets.  The Nabataean people started working from the top down, removing stone and carving into the cliff face so they wouldn’t damage any work below.  The planning and thought that had to go into such an effort was massive.  Plus great engineering acumen was needed to understand the weight and loading of the sandstone that would be cantilevered or supporting openings and rooms inside.  I just stood looking at it for a good five minutes before walking around the façade and taking pictures.  The Treasury is only one part of Petra though. 

The Treasury

Another small ravine leads towards the rest of Petra.  I knew that there were more buildings and stone facades in Petra but I was surprised at how much of the canyon was occupied by the former city.  Caves and carvings dotted the cliff up to four of five stories off the ground.  There was even class distinction between the larger facades and homes for the wealthy and the middle class and lower class homes on the other side of the canyon.  These homes were also burial sites.  Families would live with the ashes of bones of their dead relatives as a part of their religious beliefs.  Reliefs cut into the top of all of the homes had sets of stairs or crows steps which symbolized their belief of the spirit dying and rising in the afterlife.   

Lower Class

Upper Class
The city has storerooms, temples, markets, and even an amphitheater.   Much more of the city is likely buried under the centuries of sediment that have piled up on the canyon flood in the centuries since the city was occupied.  The Nabataean were the first ones living there until the Romans came and conquered the city in the first century AD.  By the fourth century AD the city was in collapse as the water management system failed.  The great success of Petra came from their ability to harness the natural water in the desert.  They had a water system of drinking water and another for animals and hygiene.  Clay pipes were laid high up on the rock to allow for gravity to pull water into the city.  Remnants of the pipe and water system can be seen high along the cliff as strong horizontal lines. 

Some of the more breathtaking views and elements of Petra are further down.  Larger facades were carved into the cliffs facing south and the lower part of the city.  The caravans and trade entered the city from this end and I can only imagine how it must have looked in the City’s prime as people first entered into Petra.  We had a few minutes to climb to one of the higher points that looks out over Petra before heading back up to the van.  The hike was well worth it for the views of the mountains and city. 
South Cliff Facade
The View South

The walk back to the van took about 35 minutes at a good pace.  The exercise was needed to help warm me up and brace against the cold wind.  Just before entering the Siq I took a few more minutes to look at the Treasury.  I have to say that this part of my trip was the highlight.  And, I must watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when I return home. 

Leaving Petra

Lunch was served as a buffet style at a restaurant in Wadi Musa.  We didn’t eat until almost 3:30pm.  I was so hungry I just dove in so I will apologize for the lack of picture of food.  I enjoyed there hummus and pita as well as a lamb “stew” over rice.  One of the best parts was dessert which was something like a bread pudding that was more of a custard style with plenty of cinnamon. 

The drive back towards Israel was long but went fast as I was able to take a nap.  We had a brief stop in the Jordanian city of Aqaba where we visited another shop and had an opportunity to walk around.  There was a liquor store on the block which I was surprised to find there.  The window display had large bottles of Chevas Regal, Jose Cuervo, and even bottles of Jordanian wine.  I don’t know how good the wine would be though.  The bottle of Chardonnay had a 12.5% ABV.

Aqaba Fountain
Jordanian Wine

Crossing the border back into Israel took some time.  The Jordanians bid us farewell and we crossed the land between countries quickly before entering the Israeli checkpoint.  We had to go through security screening, answer questions about our trip, and pass through customs to meet back with our Israeli driver.  A quick ride later and I was back at the Eilat airport with the two Texan ladies.  We handed out passports to the security screeners and spent about 10 minutes answering questions about our time in Israel and in Jordan, who we talked to, and if anyone gave us items.  Finally we were able to check in for our flight and pass through another security line with metal detectors.  The flight didn’t leave for another 1.5 hours so we grabbed tea and chatted until time to board.

The return flight to Tel Aviv was on an ATR-72-500.  I have never flown on this aircraft type before as I only know of one US carrier to use them, American Eagle.  The turboprop holds 72 and again the flight was maybe 25% full.  The check-in agent was kind enough to give me the emergency exit row seat at the front of the plane so I had generous legroom. Boarding was from the back of the plane as a cargo door and small hold was at the front for luggage.  The row 1 seats actually faced the row 2 seats where I was sitting.  Thankfully, no one sat there.  Drink service was fast again and I enjoyed my second chocolate croissant of the day.  They also passed out wet naps that even have ads on them.  I think something like this should be relative easy to being back to economy service on US carriers.  I would think that the advertising revenue would help offset the costs of that small perk of a small snack and wet wipe.

In-Flight Snack

Landing as quick and then it was back to the hotel to sleep.  I finally have a day without plans other than to walk around Tel Aviv so that means I will try to sleep in if I can.