If there were one day of the year on which the city of Beijing could be described as “quiet”, today would be it: the eve of Chinese New Year, with much of the population having departed for their hometowns around the country. It’s quite a peaceful time in the capital, and it’s the perfect occasion to reflect on what’s been a hugely rewarding round-the-world trip so far.
With the sheer volume of new travel experiences on this trip, I’ve chosen to divide the usual Impressions post into two parts, and Beijing feels like the natural break point as ostensibly the only real “destination” that was actually set in stone from the very beginning.
Therefore, this first part will cover the rather significant detour I took from Toronto to Beijing via Accra, Istanbul, Perth, and Auckland, while the next installment will focus on the United Island Hopper journey on the way back.
A Long & Exhausting Journey to West Africa
To kick off the trip, I was booked on Ethiopian Airlines’s fifth-freedom flight from Newark to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, which is actually quite a convenient way to get to West Africa.
Why, then, was my trip so long and exhausting? Well, I kind of brought it upon myself with the extra-long layover I had planned in Newark in order to try out the new United Polaris Lounge there. The awkward six-hour layover in Abidjan, the result of an airline schedule change, didn’t help matters either.
No regrets about it, though – the Polaris Lounge is a truly indulgent place to spend time before your international flight, and it really sets the new standard for flagship premium lounges in North America. I had visited the Chicago location a few months back, and the Newark lounge left me equally impressed with its private seating pods and delicious à la carte dining options.
Transiting through the US was rarely a pleasant experience in the past, but nowadays, I’d be quite happy with a US connection if I can get a few hours in one of the Polaris Lounges to relax before my flight. Well done, United, and I look forward to patronizing the Houston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles locations in the future.
My Ethiopian flight didn’t depart until 11:55pm, and I was lucky in that there was no one seated next to me in the 2-2-2 configuration of business class seats, so I had lots of space to fully spread out. I had actually flown on the Ethiopian 787 on a short flight before, and this one was largely the same experience: good food, interesting crew uniforms, but a rather disappointing angled-flat hard product.
While I’m not in a hurry to fly Ethiopian again, they’re certainly my first choice for flying to Africa, and their surprisingly vast network means that I’ll likely be considering them on many other trips as well.
Immigration in Abidjan was quite the unusual experience. The staff at the transit desk were convinced that my printed-out boarding pass for my South African Airways flight wasn’t valid, so they walked me straight past immigration to the check-in counters in the landside terminal.
When it became apparent that my boarding pass would indeed suffice, the guy promptly brought me over to the immigration queue for departures, where I received an exit stamp in my passport despite never having actually entered the country.
I get the impression that the Côte d’Ivoire border isn’t exactly impregnable to outsiders, but oh well, at least it makes for a fun story to tell. I spent the rest of my six-hour layover chatting with a rather interesting new friend I made, a Chinese ship worker who was en route to boarding his next mission in nearby Lomé, Togo.
Rather annoyingly, South African Airways blindsided me with a last-minute equipment swap, exchanging their stylish new A330 business class for their old A340 product on the Abidjan–Accra flight on this day.
While the hard product on this short one-hour flight wasn’t anything to write home about, the soft product was hilariously casual: the lead flight attendant ended every PA announcement with “thanks guys!” and addressed me as “young man” during the drink service. I decided to take that as a compliment…
The Best of Accra
It was therefore about 24 hours after departing Toronto that I finally landed in Accra, Ghana. Mercifully, the Marriott Accra offers a complimentary shuttle to make the short drive from the airport, so I was able to quickly get some rest for the night.
After a delicious hotel breakfast that featured a rotating selection of local Ghanaian dishes (many of which are awfully spicy for breakfast), I met up with Kennedy, a local Accra resident who had been introduced to me by a mutual friend.
I had expected to deal with quite a few challenges travelling to Ghana as a first-time visitor, so having a local friend show me around was key in overcoming those hurdles. I’m happy to say that my time in Accra was incredibly fruitful, and I got to know the city from many angles – from the cosmopolitan developments and bustling nightlife in Osu, to the old colonial port of Jamestown, now a ramshackle sprawl of shantytowns and fishing villages.
We walked around the impressive Black Star Square, ate some delicious fish, chicken, and pork dishes slathered in that addictively spicy green chilli sauce, and relaxed on the expansive Labadi Beach where everyone goes on Sundays.
I was quite sad to leave Accra in the end, but alas the journey had to continue. I definitely hope to be back in the future, because there’s many more treasures in the outer parts of Ghana that I’ve yet to discover, like the Cape Coast castle, the Wli waterfalls, and the Nzulezo overwater community.
A Longer & Even More Exhausting Journey to Oceania
As you might expect, travelling from Accra to Perth necessitated quite a back-breaking journey. I could’ve (and probably should’ve) gone via Johannesburg on South African Airways for a simple one-stop routing, and I can’t really remember why I had decided to fly up via Istanbul and Singapore instead. Maybe it was because I had wanted to fly a greater variety of airlines, but looking back, perhaps that wasn’t the wisest of decisions.
After an uneventful overnight flight on the Turkish Airlines 737 (sadly not the new 737 MAX, which they do fly on this route as well), I faced an 18-hour layover in Istanbul.
To sweeten the deal for passengers who fly on connecting journeys with them, Turkish Airlines offers the choice of a free hotel stay or a free city tour on long layovers like these. I was really quite indifferent between the two, so I put it to a vote:
Got a 18 hr layover in Istanbul, and I can get a free hotel or free city tour, but not both. Which one do you recommend I do? (Keep in mind city tour is only 9 hours max, rest of time will be in CIP Lounge)— Prince of Travel (@princeof_travel) January 26, 2019
The people voted overwhelmingly for the city tour, so I embarked on the evening tour, departing the airport at 4pm and returning at 9pm. Truthfully, I had intended to take one of the earlier, more comprehensive tours, but I had napped for a little too long in the ever-excellent Turkish CIP Lounge.
City Tour was probably the right decision in the end, since I still got my rest in the lounge and was able to enjoy a fully guided tour of the major Istanbul attractions. We got to walk inside the Blue Mosque just before it was closing, after which we got to see the Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, and the Grand Bazaar. I actually have a trip to Istanbul planned for later in the year, so it was great to get a preview of what I can expect to absorb more fully a few months from now.
Next, the Turkish Airlines 777 would bring me all the way to Singapore, and I was curious to compare notes vis-à-vis the A330 product I had flown very recently on my other round-the-world trip. Amazingly, despite the uncompetitive 2-3-2 seating arrangement, I once again scored an empty middle seat next to me, despite the cabin being virtually 95% full!
While I still very much enjoyed the Do&Co-catered food and drink, I unfortunately did find the service on this flight to be a little inconsistent and disappointing.
Right before takeoff, the crew bizarrely begged me to switch to a different seat so that (apparently) a VIP and her travel companion could sit together in my seat and the empty seat adjacent to me. I of course steadfastly refused. Then, during the meal service, the crew forgot to deliver my entire dessert order as they sat down to eat their own meals in the galley a few feet in front of me.
The final leg of the journey, on the brand-new Singapore Airlines Boeing 787-10, was a different story entirely. This is a spectacular business class product and a massive upgrade over the angled-flat A330s that Singapore Airlines has been running up and down the Asia-Pacific for the past few decades.
Some reviews out there found the seat to be a little narrow, but I didn’t think that was much of an issue, especially with the armrests down on each side to add to the width of the seat. Moreover, if you can grab one of the bulkhead window seats (like I did), you can even use the baby bassinet space as a massive additional storage area!
A delicious Book the Cook-inspired prawn & chicken laksa and a viewing of Johnny English Strikes Again on the snazzy in-flight entertainment monitor later, I was finally in Australia for the very first time.
The Best of Perth & Auckland
Shuffling my way past immigration and stepping out into the warm Western Australian night, I took note of the fact that I had officially stepped foot on all six inhabited continents. As a passionate traveller, this was a huge personal milestone.
As if to celebrate the occasion, I was delighted to find out that the Westin Perth had given me a complimentary upgrade to their incredible one-bedroom suite. The hotel only opened last year, and its furnishings are very much in keeping with modern-day design trends, so the suite was pretty much what I might imagine my dream apartment to look like.
I did my best to fully enjoy my time in the awesome suite, but to be honest, without Jessica here with me on this trip, I didn’t really know what to do with all the extra space!
Before this trip, I knew very little about the city of Perth, besides the fact that it was optimal for Aeroplan Mini-RTW journeys out of Toronto because of the sheer distance. Well, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found during my short time in town – it’s quite a creative, multicultural, and easy-going city that’s quickly growing in prominence.
I enjoyed visiting the Perth Mint and watching a live gold pour, people-watching at the Perth Cultural Centre, and of course, heading out to the city of Fremantle on the Indian Ocean coast for a day trip. The tour of the old Fremantle Prison was quite illuminating, and really drove home the fact that this whole modern nation was essentially built and settled by convicts. What a bizarre world we live in.
Living in Canada, I tend to think of everywhere in Australia and New Zealand as “down under” and gloss over the vast distances between cities. Perth and Auckland? Oh they’re right next to each other, eh? Nope, I had to get on a seven-hour flight in Air New Zealand economy class to get from one to the other, but thankfully I again had an empty middle seat next to me – I was 4/4 on empty neighbouring seats by this point!
How did I like Auckland? I loved it… like, really really loved it. So much that I found myself casually researching NZ working holiday visas as I sat down for dinner.
As soon as I got off the airport bus, I had the feeling that it was my kind of place. The similarities to Canada might be an underlying factor – the arterial Queen Street and the picturesque Viaduct Harbour look a lot like my birthplace of Vancouver, while the Sky Tower is obviously reminiscent of Toronto, where I currently live.
But I love the city’s very own Kiwi charms as well, such as the prominence of the indigenous Maori influences and how the rugged volcanic mountainous landscape blends seamlessly into the city.
With both Perth and Auckland, a short stay of two or three days was not nearly enough, given how much more there is to discover within a few hours’ drive from the city limits. I look forward to coming back soon – indeed, Jessica and I are already planning a New Zealand trip for the winter of 2019.
Singapore Suites: WOW!
When you first start dabbling with Miles & Points, you soon hear the name Singapore Suites bandied about as one of the most aspirational awards you can book. It’s seen as one of the big rites of passage for all the First Class enthusiasts out there, and it gets a lot of hype…
…and I’m glad to say that it lived up to the hype in every way.
I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking for now, but the highlights included free-flowing 2009 Dom Perignon and 2004 Krug vintage, delectable Lobster Thermidor and NZ lamb loin off the Book the Cook menu, and of course the famous Double Bed in the Sky.
I had booked myself Suite 3C, one of the suites in the centre aisle that could be converted into a double bed, gambling on the fact that no one would take the seat next to me if they could instead grab one of the window seats. My gamble paid off, allowing me to enjoy the Double Bed in the Sky all to myself. I guess that makes it 5/5 for empty adjacent seats! 😉
Best flight of my life so far? It’s certainly up there. Not only were the gigantic First Class suite and the onboard catering highly impressive, but the crew provided some of the most fantastic in-flight service I had ever experienced. I obviously didn’t want to trouble them too much with my photos and video, but the flight attendant taking care of me was incredibly enthusiastic about helping me with a photo shoot.
10 hours of grinning ear-to-ear later, I found myself in Singapore Changi’s busy Terminal 3. Not for long, though, because I made my way to the Singapore Airlines Private Room, a lounge-within-a-lounge-within-a-lounge that’s solely for Singapore Suites and First Class passengers. I was awfully full by this point, but still found it within myself to wolf down some truly mouthwatering sweet corn soup and braised Chilean sea bass.
Finally, after a few hours of basking in the exclusivity of the Private Room, it was time to fly Air China business class on a red-eye to Beijing. Talk about coming back down to Earth…
Good news, though, because I had been assigned 12D in the aisle for this flight, and – you know it – 12G next to me remained empty. 6 for 6!
It’s been an unbelievably rewarding trip so far, with one exciting new travel experience after the other, and I expect that to continue at the end of the week, when I’ll be commencing my return trip via the United Island Hopper. Until then, I look forward to relaxing and recuperating from the long journey here in Beijing while I celebrate the Chinese New Year over the next few days – my best wishes to you all for the Year of the Pig!