Category Archives: Exploring the UK

2013 Travel Review – A Bit of Balance

I am admittedly late with my year-end travel review this year, and for the sake of all, I’m going to make it more succinct than in the past.  This is the third annual year-end review – 2011 was “The Year of Travel” and 2012 was “Crossing the 100k Line”.  I’ve chosen 2013’s title because the year was slightly less crazy than 2012, involved a bit less total travel and an overall somewhat better work-life balance, as seen not only in more personal travel but also working fewer weekends.

In 2013 I was not at home for 116 nights, just a bit shy of 1/3 of the time (and only 3 nights less than last year’s monster total).  With 27 nights away with Astrid (very similar to last year’s 26), that meant we were apart for 89 nights, or just about 25% of the year – which is about one week each month on average.  The greatest difference from last year was more personal travel – in addition to time with Astrid I was away for 11 additional nights that were not for business (although usually tacked on to the end of business trips).

Looking at where I was, I spent 41 nights in North America (vs. 42 in 2012) and a lot of time in South America – 26 nights over two trips including our long vacation in Argentina and Chile.  I just had one long trip to Asia, with 15 nights in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.  That trip featured my only night on a train, to match last year’s night aboard the Caledonian Sleeper to Scotland – but quite a different experience!

This is the inside of the Thai second-class sleeper - two facing seats by day, an upper and lower bunk by night (which is strictly defined as something like 8pm-6am).  As you can see, I wasn't the only Westerner on board!

This is the inside of the Thai second-class sleeper – two facing seats by day, an upper and lower bunk by night (which is strictly defined as something like 8pm-6am). As you can see, I wasn’t the only Westerner on board!

The rest of the time away was closer to home – 18 nights in Europe highlighted by my trip through France to Barcelona with Bill and our end-of-the-year vacation to Dubrovnik, and 7 nights here in the UK, including our romantic getaway to the swanky hotel in the former eye hospital in Exeter around Valentine’s Day and two nights in a hotel in London (same as 2012, and again for a big local work event). In addition to the night on the Thai train mentioned above, 11 other nights were in transit – two nights on Brittany Ferries’ Pont-Aven to and from St Malo in France, and 9 nights on airplanes (on five different airlines).

Our hotel and transport in one – despite operating between the UK and France (and even Spain), the company and the staff are most certainly French! Image from Brittany Ferries Enthusiasts (yes, I was surprised too).

The year’s total flying came to about 92,000 miles.  Although this is nearly 20k fewer than last year, it still comes to more than 3.5x around the Earth! Interestingly, despite traveling less distance I took 6 more flights – 43 individual flights in 2013 compared to 37 in 2012.  To make the math balance out, that means that there were more short flights; 63% of my flights were short-haul, this year all about 4 hours or less.

This map shows my 2013 flying – it is a bit simpler than 2012 with nothing trans-Pacific or to Australia.

This map shows my 2013 flying – it is a bit simpler than 2012 with nothing trans-Pacific or to Australia.

Although 2013 doesn’t look all that interesting on the map compared to 2012, the flying highlights were different.  In 2013 I flew for the first time on both the Airbus A380 super jumbo and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  My A380 flight from Singapore to London was also my longest flight at more than 6700 miles and about 13 ½ hours, and it was on 5-star Singapore Airlines, the launch customer for the world’s largest passenger aircraft back in 2007.  Despite its size, you really don’t even notice that the plane is two levels because each deck is boarded from a separate jet bridge.  The other really noticeable characteristic is noise – there is virtually none! I have to give Airbus credit for being dramatically quieter than Boeing.

My chariot for the way home - a Singapore Airlines A380 super jumbo.  Even though the plane has been flying since 2007 (and Singapore Airlines was the first to do so), this was my first time on it, as there are only about 100 in service around the world so far.  British Airways is putting its first two into action later this year, so I will likely see more of it.

My chariot for the way home from Singapore.  There are only 119 of these in service around the world so far, with Singapore Airlines having the second most (19) to Emirates, the Dubai-based mega-airline that has 44 in use.  The plane is certified to seat up to 853 passengers if all in one class (i.e. squeezed in!), but actually the planes operating today have from about 407 seats up to 644.  My ride was nearly the most comfortably configured, with just 409 seats in total and all business class on the upper deck.

Although the A380 was memorable, it was actually my only long-haul Airbus flight this year.  The other 15 long-haul flights were all Boeing.  The highlight was probably the my Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight from London to Newark on British Airways.  Luckily, this was in November, well after the innovative aircraft got back in the air following its worldwide grounding early in 2013.  The 747 with its short upper deck is still a favorite, though – I’ve had 16 flights on 747s in the past three years, and it will be sad to see them disappear over the coming years – although British Airways is the largest 747 operator in the world with 52, they are going to be phased out in favor of new and more fuel-efficient planes.

A classic design!  Ready to take me from Terminal 5 at Heathrow to JFK, BA's most popular destination, in October as the first segment of my three-leg trip to Santiago.

A classic design! Ready to take me from Terminal 5 at Heathrow to JFK, BA’s most popular destination, in October as the first segment of my three-leg trip to Santiago.

I flew the most on the old Boeing 767s – eight times including three short-haul flights and long-haul flights on BA and twice each on Delta and LAN.

This Delta 767-400ER was my ride from London to Atlanta, on my way to Florida.  There are only 37 of this type of plane - the newest and largest type of 767 - in existence, with 21 at Delta and 16 at United (that were previously Continental).

This Delta 767-400ER was my ride from London to Atlanta, on my way to Florida. There are only 37 of this type of plane – the newest and largest type of 767 – in existence, with 21 at Delta and 16 at United (that were previously Continental).

The other highlight of 2013 flying was airlines – although nearly 1/3 was British Airways (14 flights), I flew six totally new airlines as well as first-time long-haul flying with both Delta and American.  I covered a lot of ground in Singapore and Malaysia, flying for the first time not only on the superb Singapore Airlines, but also on Malaysia Airlines and two of the top low-cost carriers that are following the path of easyJet and Southwest – Jetstar Asia and AirAsia.  Despite not flying previously with LAN, I flew with them five times in 2013, including two long-hauls between Miami and Santiago, and they definitely appear to be the best airline in South America.  I also note that the newest premium long-haul products on both American and Delta were both quite good, and it is nice to see the US-based airlines posting a decent showing.

Another new airline - JetStar Asia is based in Singapore and is the Asian branch of the Qantas low-cost subsidiary JetStar in Australia.

Seen here at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, this Jetstar plane took me the very short 185 miles to Singapore.  In the background is a Malaysia Airlines plane, as this is their home (I flew them a few days earlier from Bangkok down to KL).

Rounding out my new airlines was Vueling, a fast-growing ultra low-cost carrier based in Spain, and now owned by both the Spanish flag carrier Iberia and IAG, the parent company of British Airways.  It was perfectly efficient for an hour-long flight from Barcelona to Paris, but they sure do pack them in – with the maximum number of 180 seats in an Airbus A320 (as compared to just about 150 seats on the same plane as operated by British Airways).

Looking at airports for a moment, it is no surprise that Heathrow again is in the lead.  Over the last three years I’ve taken off or landed at Heathrow 58 times, including 18 this year – meaning that in 2013 one in five of my flights either started or ended at Heathrow).  Heathrow gets a bad rap all around the world, but actually I don’t think it’s so bad if you know how to navigate it.  Even though London has now six airports, in 2013 I used only Heathrow, apart from departing Gatwick twice – to Las Vegas in March and to Dubrovnik last week.  Second-place in airport frequency this year was New York JFK at the start or end of 8 flights, followed by six at Singapore Changi (which is often rated the best airport in the world) and five at Santiago.

My first time in Salt Lake City started with massive congestion at the airport, specifically the baggage claim belt.  It was so jammed that people couldn't pry their luggage loose!

My first time in Salt Lake City started with massive congestion at the airport, specifically the baggage claim belt. It was so jammed that people couldn’t pry their luggage loose!

Rather than go back through the entire year, I thought it might be worth just touching on a few highlights via pictures.

This was the outer point of a really enjoyable work-related weekend tour of Metro-North and LIRR in New York - Tenmile River Station on the Upper Harlem Line serving Amenia, New York - 80 miles north of Grand Central deep in Dutchess County.  To get here we took a bus across the countryside from Poughkeepsie - the vehicle can only be described as a yellow school bus converted to transit use by changing the color.  Still, most of the railroad staff didn't believe me that it was even possible to make the trip by transit!

This was the outer point of a really enjoyable work-related weekend tour of Metro-North and LIRR in New York – Tenmile River Station on the Upper Harlem Line serving Amenia, New York – 80 miles north of Grand Central deep in Dutchess County. To get here we took a bus across the countryside from Poughkeepsie – the vehicle can only be described as a yellow school bus converted to transit use by changing the color. Still, most of the railroad staff didn’t believe me that it was even possible to make the trip by transit!

A highlight of our Valentine's Day getaway to Exeter was the Cathedral - this is the Chapter House, which is punctuated with large modern bronze sculptures.

A highlight of our Valentine’s Day getaway to Exeter was the Cathedral – this is the Chapter House, which is punctuated with large modern bronze sculptures.

I couldn't turn down a quick overnight stop in Las Vegas on the way to more sober work in Salt Lake City last March - we had a great walk up and down the Strip with a stop at the Ocean's Eleven spot in front of the Bellagio.

I couldn’t turn down a quick overnight stop in Las Vegas on the way to more sober work in Salt Lake City last March – we had a great walk up and down the Strip with a stop at the Ocean’s Eleven spot in front of the Bellagio.

While in San Francisco I caught the start of The Bay Lights, a public art display with LED lights on the otherwise utilitarian Bay Bridge, which has always been stuck trying to make a name for itself compared to its Golden cousin...

While in San Francisco I caught the start of The Bay Lights, a public art display with LED lights on the otherwise utilitarian Bay Bridge, which has always been stuck trying to make a name for itself compared to its Golden cousin…

Who says LA is totally car-oriented?  I was concerned about the railway safety message here for my 3-year-old niece, but I think it is ok.  I took advantage of being in Southern CA to visit with family, and I was just in time for my new nephew - born the week before!  Image courtesy of my mother-in-law.

Who says LA is totally car-oriented? I was concerned about the railway safety message here for my 3-year-old niece, but I think it is ok. I took advantage of being in Southern CA to visit with family, and I was just in time for my new nephew – born the week before! Image courtesy of my mother-in-law.

You've heard all about our driving trip over the Andes - without a doubt a highlight of more than just one year!

You’ve heard all about our driving trip over the Andes – without a doubt a highlight of more than just one year!

This is the promenade in front of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia - probably the nicest hotel I've ever stayed at, and for less than £100 a night! If I could post a picture of the balcony showing the sea and playing the sound of the waves crashing, I would...

This is the promenade in front of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia – probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at, and for less than £100 a night! If I could post a picture of the balcony showing the sea and playing the sound of the waves crashing, I would…

The Scarborough seaside is still popular in the summer, as we found during our driving trip through Yorkshire for Astrid's birthday.

The Scarborough seaside is still popular in the summer, as we found during our driving trip through Yorkshire for Astrid’s birthday.

Sure, I HAD to go here for a conference - you believe that, right?  Sadly this shot of the white sand of Clearwater Beach through the Sandpearl Resport was the only moment I really got to enjoy the setting - the rest was work, work, work!

Sure, I HAD to go here for a conference – you believe that, right? Sadly this shot of the white sand of Clearwater Beach through the Sandpearl Resort was the only moment I really got to enjoy the setting – the rest was work, work, work!

We had to have dinner at Alex in Barcelona, just off La Rambla in the old city - during my great trip with Bill taking trains from London to Barcelona through Paris and the Mediterranean coast.

We had to have dinner at Alex in Barcelona, just off La Rambla in the old city – during my great trip with Bill taking trains from London to Barcelona through Paris and the Mediterranean coast.

The highlight of my second trip of the year to Santiago in October was a visit to La Moneda Palace, where my group had a private meeting with the President of Chile!

The highlight of my second trip of the year to Santiago in October was a visit to La Moneda Palace, where my group had a private meeting with the President of Chile!

After some work in New York, I was really happy to have the chance for a brief 20-hour stop in Pittsburgh, where I got to catch up with some old friends and wander around my old home.  The short one on the left was mine for three years - you might be able to see the window of my pie-shaped room!

After some work in New York, I was really happy to have the chance for a brief 20-hour stop in Pittsburgh, where I got to catch up with some old friends and wander around my old home. The short one on the left was mine for three years – you might be able to see the window of my pie-shaped room!

The year ended with a great trip to Dubrovnik for New Year’s – see the scene at Midnight here.  More to come on Dubrovnik soon.  As for my 2014 travel outlook, I’ve got some new and exciting (if challenging!) destinations coming up – Mexico City, Delhi, and Beijing before the year is out.  Best wishes to you and yours for a healthy and successful 2014 and happy travels!

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I Spy a Monster … or did I?

Whilst in Scotland and in Inverness we made the requisite trip down to Loch Ness to see if we could spy a monster. Yes, I must admit, Loch Ness is surely one of the worst tourist traps in the world, and going on a cruise to look for Nessie ranks right up there with “going to the top of the Eiffel Tower” as one of the most cliched things you can do … but it must be done. These places are tourist traps for a reason, after all, because the tourists love to do them!  So we played tourist for a day, and took the boat out on Loch Ness. We tried to something a bit different though, and rather than merely monster spotting we took the cruise to Castle Urquhart, a lovely ruin on the shore of Loch Ness.  Unfortunately, our “something a bit different” turned out to be the same thing that 4,276,294 other tourists wanted to do that day! Oh well.  It was very scenic, if you can see past all the annoying Americans.  🙂

This is the boat we took. It’s got a very shallow draft, so it can come right up to the shoreline. It’s also a catamaran, which I thought was interesting.

 

The guidebooks always describe Loch Ness as being “surrounded by the highlands” , but in my opinion these were pretty low and meagre. It did look like farther down the loch the mountains were more impressive …

 

Looking south on Loch Ness … it’s a really long lake, so it’s not surprising to think that a monster could hide in there for years and never be found. And no, that’s not Nessie on the far left of the pic, it’s just another boat.  🙂

 

Arriving at Urquhart Castle by water is a pretty impressive experience, even if the ruins leave a bit to be desired. They really are ruins … there is hardly anything left of the castle that once looked out over the water.

 

Looking up at the remains of the castle keep. Yes, there was a conga line of tourists, all eagerly waiting for their 20.3 seconds at the top.

 

Historic Scotland did a nice job with the preservation of the ruins, and they’ve made a valiant attempt to provide historical background. But the reality is that it was a pretty poor castle, in a pretty useless location … nothing big ever really happened here.

 

Overall, I would probably not recommend either the Loch cruise or the Castle to friends visiting Scotland. It was quite pricey (especially the taxi out to the boat’s departure point!), and there are more interesting sites to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INverness: the city IN the Highlands

The title of this blogpost is just as annoying as it sounds, and yes, it is the tourism slogan for Inverness. I find it annoying because the name isn’t pronounced with an accent on the IN, the accent is on the NESS, so this slogan flips it all around and makes me sound like an idiot when I say INverness.

Looking down the River Ness, with the churches on the right and our hotel on the left. The river is quite wide, but only a few feet deep. It made me long for an inner-tube!

All that is beside the point, however, because both Alex and I really enjoyed our stay IN the city IN the Highlands. The city is considered the capital of the Highlands, but I definitely didn’t feel like I was IN the Highlands whilst there … I heard lots of seagulls, and not many bagpipes. But it’s really a nice place.  The river Ness (which is where the city name, Imbhir Ness in Gaelic, comes from – it means “Mouth of the River Ness” was a charming and babbling brook.  We were both astonished at how clean and clear the water was – you could see right through to the rocks below. I think we’ll have to go back for the Highland Games next July, as I really do want to see those!

This is the castle of Inverness, but it’s a bit of a fake. It’s a Victorian reconstruction, and you know those Victorians were never very interested in accuracy! Nowadays it’s the civic and court center, so you can’t tour the inside (unless you get yourself arrested, but I don’t think it’s worth it!)

We enjoyed a charming walk about a mile upriver to the Ness Islands, which seemed really idyllic. Just a few small islands in the middle of the river, you feel like you’re totally on your own. They also have some really cool artistic benches scattered about, providing the perfect spot to enjoy the scenery.

This is the train station in Inverness. I have to admit, I think it’s definitely one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s really a pity, because on either side are some nice stone buildings, but the squat, concrete, 1970’s style of the station is hideous. I wonder what they tore down to put this up?

 

A couple enjoying a quiet moment on the Ness Islands.

 

We saw a lot of people sitting along the banks of the river – some rather precariously! A few were almost vertical along the steep banks … and I would be afraid that if I nodded off, I would get a dunking!

 

A pedestrian bridge spanning the River Ness, leading from the “mainland” out to one of the Ness Islands. Alex was enchanted by the house in the background with the pointed turrets … it looks like a princess lives there!

 

After a lovely dinner we took another stroll by the river, and captured the castle just after sunset. It’s pretty striking the way it sits on that hill and overlooks the river … it must have been quite intimidating back in the day!