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Impressions from Round-the-World Again 2019

I’m back in Montreal now, having flown over to the opposite side of the world and then back over the past three weeks. My motivations in taking this trip were to visit a few brand-new destinations, catch up with some friends around the world, and also try out a few exciting new business class airlines, and I’d say I fulfilled those tripartite goals very well in the end.

The whole trip took place at a rather overwhelming pace, though, and I had very little time to catch my breath and take stock of my surroundings before it was time to board the plane again to the next destination. Allow me, therefore, to take this opportunity to reflect on the trip and share with you my initial impressions from this highly memorable three-week adventure.

(Since I’ve already talked about the Marriott suite upgrades I received on this trip, I’ll be somewhat glossing over the hotels in this post.)

Turkish Airlines 787 Business Class: Transatlantic Excellence

The nature of my Aeroplan Mini-RTW itinerary was that the only Turkish 787 business class flight I could find at the time of booking was Turkish Airlines Flight 181, the Istanbul–Mexico City–Cancún–Istanbul “triangle” service that the airline recently launched.

My trip therefore began with an indulgent long layover in Cancún, where I spent an afternoon whipping some posts for Prince of Travel while hanging out by the pool at the JW Marriott.

JW Marriott Cancún Resort & Spa

JW Marriott Cancún Resort & Spa

After feasting on some chilaquiles and salsa verde at breakfast the next day, it was time to head back to the airport and board the 12-hour flight on Turkish Airlines’s new Dreamliner over to Istanbul. 

Turkish Airlines 787 business class

Turkish Airlines 787 business class

The new Turkish Airlines business class seat is virtually a perfect replica of what you’ll find on the Singapore Airlines 787-10, arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration with direct aisle access from every seat. In terms of the in-seat features, the seat privacy, and the visual appeal, it’s a massive upgrade from the forward-facing seats that you’ll find on Turkish Airlines’s older Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s, respectively.

On the other hand, one of the side-effects of moving to a more intimate seat type is that you end up having less personal space as a result, and the sleeping experience onboard Turkish’s 787s (and A350s in the future as well) – where your legs are housed within a relatively long and thin footwell – is definitely more restrictive than the openness of the old seat.

Turkish Airlines 787 business class

Turkish Airlines 787 business class

But like I said, that simply comes with the territory of these modern and stylish seats, and in my mind, as long as the lie-flat bed isn’t too cozy (which I didn’t find to be the case here), then it’s a worthwhile trade-off for the more cutting-edge product.

As a daytime flight across the Atlantic, breakfast was served shortly after take-off followed by a light dinner before landing, and as per usual, Turkish’s DO&CO-inspired catering delivered to a very high level. Once Turkish places their 787s and A350s on more of their North American routes in the coming years, I’d say this product is a strong contender for the best way to fly business class across the Atlantic.

I took advantage of the free Istanbul layover hotel to catch up on my sleep, and after that, an unremarkable red-eye flight on a Turkish 737 brought me over to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. 

Kazakhstan: Exploring a Brand New Frontier

Immediately upon landing in Nur-Sultan at an ungodly hour of 4am, I was struck by a renewed sense of foreignness about the place – the kind that lights a fire in you as a traveller – and I knew I’d have a great time exploring the country over the next four days. Central Asia, and “the Stans” in particular, had always been a fascinating region of the map to me, and it was hard to believe that I was finally here.

After settling into my swanky surroundings at the St. Regis Astana, I got ready to head out into the city in the morning… except for one little problem: I had totally overlooked the fact that the Kazakh capital lies at 51˚N of latitude – about the same as Calgary – and so the winter’s snowfall had already begun in earnest by early November. 

Thankfully, I quickly figured out how to use the Yandex Taxi app (the local equivalent of Uber) to get around, and I was able to check out a few important Nur-Sultan landmarks, like the Bayterek Tower, the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre (which is basically a mall housed in a huge tent structure), and the Expo 2017. 

Bayterek Tower, Nur-Sultan

Bayterek Tower, Nur-Sultan

As a planned city, Nur-Sultan is home to dozens of stunning modern buildings alongside older Soviet-era architecture, and it was a downright eerie feeling to walk along the city’s main promenade in the heavy snowfall, with no one else around besides the various towering glass structures in the distance. It was half-fairytale, half-dystopia, and was definitely one of the strangest first impressions I’ve ever had about a new place.

(Fortunately, the snow let up in the afternoon, and I saw more locals come outside and go about their day, assuring me that this was in fact a national capital, where something resembling life as I know it does indeed take place.) 

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre, Nur-Sultan

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre, Nur-Sultan

The next day, though, the heavy snow resumed, and the temperature was a much more punishing –9˚C. I barely made it to the gorgeous Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the largest in Central Asia, as well as the Kazakh National Museum, without freezing to death. 

Hazrat Sultan Mosque, Nur-Sultan

Hazrat Sultan Mosque, Nur-Sultan

After absorbing some of Kazakhstan’s history at the museum, it was time to head to the airport for my side-trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Compared to the extreme weirdness of Nur-Sultan, Almaty feels much more vibrant and cosmopolitan, as though this is where the “real” Kazakhstan lies.

I explored the city at a leisurely pace: on the first day, I checked out the impressive mountain scenery at the Shymbulak ski resort on the outskirts of town, and then I headed back into the city to look at a few Russian Orthodox churches, before taking the metro and walking through a few residential neighbourhoods on my way back to the hotel. 

Shymbulak ski resort, Almaty

Shymbulak ski resort, Almaty

Then, the second day, I met up with a local contact to try some horse meat, a local specialty (it didn’t taste much different from a regular steak, if I’m honest), before taking the cable car up the Kok-Tobe mountain for a panoramic view of the city.

View of Almaty, Kazakhstan

View of Almaty, Kazakhstan

This was a very eye-opening first visit to Central Asia, and I’m absolutely convinced that I must make time to return in the future and see more of Kazakhstan and the other “Stans”. Next time, I hope to sample Almaty’s supposedly excellent nightlife scene, and I’d also love to check out some of the region’s rarely-visited natural beauty – with the “underwater forest” of Lake Kaindy as one particular bucket list item. 

The Long Journey to Melbourne

I arrived in Shanghai the next morning in a state of exhaustion, having taken an awkward five-hour red-eye flight from Nur-Sultan to Beijing. Fortunately, my suite at the W Shanghai The Bund was ready early, so I rested and worked for the afternoon before spending the evening catching up with a good friend over in the Jing’an District.

The next day was a long travel day, with a six-hour flight to Singapore followed by a five-hour flight to Perth. The first flight was originally scheduled on the Singapore Airlines Airbus A350, which would’ve been a brand-new product for me, but unfortunately the airline swapped it out for a Boeing 787-10 that I had already flown before.

(I still haven’t flown on an Airbus A350, by the way – and now the wait continues.)

In Singapore, I decided to spend my four-hour layover checking out the stunning indoor waterfall at The Jewel at Changi Airport and hanging out in the Priority Pass lounge in the same building.

The Jewel at Changi Airport

The Jewel at Changi Airport

I needed all the relaxation I could get on the ground, because the flight down to Perth would be the only economy class leg of this Mini-RTW itinerary – it was one of those situations where I had booked it in economy, hoping for business class to open up later on, but it never did.

As if to soften the blow, though, the Westin Perth’s 1,650-square-foot Executive Suite was waiting for me on the ground in Australia.

Executive Suite, Westin Perth

Executive Suite, Westin Perth

I got about four hours of sleep in the Westin Heavenly Bed, having scheduled an early breakfast with my Australian counterpart, Immanuel from Flight Hacks, the next morning. 

Maybe it was the welcome reprieve of some 38˚C sunshine, but I have to say, I’ve taken a real liking to Perth and Western Australia beyond the fact that it’s a favourable endpoint from the East Coast for my Aeroplan Mini-RTWs, and I’d love to come back with Jessy one day and explore the region properly. But my visit this time was all too short, since I was booked on the 3pm departure on the very enjoyable Qantas business class, bound for…

Qantas business class

Qantas business class

Melbourne: A Coffee Drinker’s Heaven

Melbourne is widely touted as the world’s coffee capital, but it took three days in town for me to fully grasp the sheer extent that coffee, and food and drink in general, is weaved into the city’s very identity. 

View of Melbourne, Australia

View of Melbourne, Australia

An emphasis on social gatherings was top-of-mind for the city planners back in the 19th century when they first “purchased” the land from the Indigenous peoples. Between Melbourne’s wide city avenues, which act as the main thoroughfares for traffic and the public trams, there lies a criss-crossing patchwork of “laneways”, or narrow pedestrian alleys, which serve as the hotspots of daily life.

Throw in the population boom of the Victorian Gold Rush and the draconian liquor laws that followed, and a globally-renowned coffee culture – the type where people line up for 30 minutes in the morning for a flat white and a “smashed avo” at the city’s best cafes – is the result.

What better way to get to know the city, then, than to shamelessly indulge in my inner AirPod-wearing, all-day-breakfast-eating, ice-cold-latte-drinking hipster? Over the course of my three days, I hopped across about a dozen different eateries and coffee shops, doing my small part to contribute to the city pride.

Meal and drink at Higher Ground Coffee

Meal and drink at Higher Ground Coffee

Some highlights included the avocado & poached eggs at Higher Ground, the gourmet bagels at Jungle Juice Bar (as part of a walking tour with Urban Adventures), and, on a reader’s recommendation, the chilli crab scrambled eggs at The Kettle Black – all with a nice dose of liquid happiness on the side. 

And it turns out I’d need every drop of that caffeine, because after three days of gastronomic excess in Melbourne, it was time to embark on…

The Even Longer Journey to Europe

Australia to Europe is a very long way to go. It’s even longer when you’re making what appear to be unnecessary detours just to try out some new airline products, which is exactly what I had signed up for over the course of 53 hours last week. 

I’ll let some photos tell most of the story here, as I got started with a three-hour flight onboard Virgin Australia business class – a clear winner over Qantas for intra-Australia flights, I might add, thanks to its more stylish seats and stronger catering.

Virgin Australia business class

Virgin Australia business class

That was followed by nine hours on ANA 787 business class, where I had snagged a “throne” seat in the middle of the cabin. As usual on Japanese airlines, the bento box dinner hit the spot just right, and of course I also woke up from my sleep early in order to sample a bowl of ramen from the snack menu. 

ANA 787 business class

ANA 787 business class

In terms of the hard product, ANA’s older business class seats are starting to show their age somewhat, and this flight convinced me that I must try out their new groundbreaking “The Room” business class as soon as possible.

In an ideal world, I would’ve connected directly from Tokyo to Taipei, but this was again a situation where I had booked a connection via Seoul as a backup option on my Mini-RTW, and my preferred routing simply never became available.

As a result, I had the pleasure of trying out the Asiana Airlines Airbus A380 business class seat on the short flight over to Seoul, followed by the Thai Airways 777 seat down to Taipei – two products that aren’t necessarily the most exciting, but that I wouldn’t have gotten to try otherwise. 

Asiana Airlines A380 business class
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Thai Airways 777 business class

The EVA Air Infinity Lounge in Taipei wasn’t completely packed for once, so I snacked on some beef noodles and Häagen-Dazs ice cream and requested a shower room to get ready for the 17-hour flight that lay ahead.

EVA Air 787 Business Class: WOW!

Based on the high standard of my previous flights on EVA Air’s 777 business class, I was fully expecting the airline’s new 787 business class experience to blow me away.

And that’s exactly what it did, over the course of the 17 hours that it takes EVA Air Flight 61 to complete its journey from Taipei to Vienna with a stop in Bangkok.

EVA Air 787 business class

EVA Air 787 business class

I was thoroughly impressed by the stunning modern finishes that EVA Air chose for their new seats, which did a perfect job of balancing all the key ingredients of a strong business class product: privacy, functionality, storage space, legroom, and visual appeal. 

EVA Air 787 business class

EVA Air 787 business class

The airline’s incredible soft product – often likened to a First Class experience in business class – was not to be outdone, either, with all three gourmet dishes that I had pre-ordered for this flight achieving very high marks. I also lost track of how many of EVA Air’s signature matcha milk teas I polished off over the 17 hours. 

Overall, this one definitely ranks up there as one of the best business class flights I’ve ever taken, and I only wish I could’ve been awake for more of it!

Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever had anything quite like the unique feeling of being so physically exhausted and yet spiritually invigorated as I did towards the tail end of this journey, looking out at the sunlight breaking over Europe and contemplating the distance I had covered over the past 53 hours.

A Week in Lausanne & London

The final leg of the trip, which was divided across two days in Switzerland and four days in the UK, was very much focused on catching up with friends and getting some respite from the breakneck pace of the trip in the weeks before.

I had the pleasure of seeing a little bit of Lausanne, Switzerland, a rather sleepy city on the shores of Lake Geneva whose main industry is the International Olympic Committee, where a good friend of mine plies his trade.

I toured the IOC Headquarters, as well as the Olympic Museum, before having some homemade Swiss fondue to wrap up my visit.

Olympic Museum, Lausanne

Olympic Museum, Lausanne

Then, I took British Airways Club Europe over to London, where I again spent the weekend catching up with various people and seeing a match at my beloved Arsenal Football Club. 

It’s a shame that the club is in absolutely dire straits at the moment, and while I always enjoy attending a home match, this was probably one of the most ill-tempered atmospheres I’ve been a part of, as we watched our team labour its way towards a tepid 2–2 draw. 

Emirates Stadium, London

Emirates Stadium, London

With so many social engagements lined up in London, I didn’t really do much sightseeing, but then again, having completed my study abroad in London back in 2014 and 2015, it’s the kind of place where I take pleasure simply in being there and going about my normal life. 

Air Canada A330 Business Class: A Real Anticlimax

Air Canada’s older business class product on the Airbus A330 was the last of 18 flights on this trip, and I approached it with curiosity rather than excitement, since I wasn’t expecting too many great things from it. 

And overall, those expectations were probably just right. The seats are looking old, the paint is chipping off in places, and some of the moving parts are barely functional.

Air Canada A330 business class

Air Canada A330 business class

At the end of the day, it’s still a lie-flat bed – albeit a rather tight one, and someone taller than my 5’11’’ frame might well struggle to sleep comfortably – but it’s a far cry from the new pods on the Air Canada Dreamliner or 777, or indeed many of the other better options for transatlantic business class out there.

On the plus side, though, Air Canada’s refreshed soft product, the Signature Service, did shine through with a particularly appetizing portion of lamb chops for lunch. 

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Lunch onboard Air Canada business class

I’d accept this product for a domestic transcontinental business class flight – indeed, I have another flight scheduled on it next week! – but I probably wouldn’t choose it again on a transatlantic journey. 

Conclusion

This was one of those trips that had it all: sunshine by the beach, adventures in foreign lands, gastronomic delights, new memories with old friends, and of course, the luxury factor – with the Dreamliner business class on Turkish Airlines, ANA, and EVA Air in particular – but also a few shorter but no less sweeter experiences on Qantas, Virgin Australia, Asiana, Thai, and Air Canada. 

I’m highly thankful that I was able to take advantage of the three-stop Aeroplan Mini-RTW before it ended and treat myself to yet another memorable trip around the world, even if it did push me to the limits of exhaustion at certain points. I’ll be taking the rest of this week to catch my breath in Montreal, before embarking on the next trip very soon in early December!