SK708 ARL-HEL MD-90 seat ??

Despite prediction of ATC doom, we landed at ARL only half an hour behind schedule, and I made it to the onward gate (just) before they started boarding. Once again, the contents (if any) of SAS’s Arlanda lounge shall remain a mystery.

The plane looked oddly retro and spacious as I boarded, and it took me a moment until I realized why — it was an MD-90, with its trademark 3-2 seating and marginally less terrible seat pitch. I was in the first row of Economy, just behind Extra, but on this 40-minute hop it didn’t really matter.

Soon enough the Finnish coastline came into view and, with a start, I realized I was looking at central Helsinki. There’s the Salmisaari powerplant and the apartment I lived in and the office of the company I used to work for and across the bridge is Nokia HQ and the red brick buildings of Helsinki U of Tech and the giant commuter/shopping hub of Leppavaara… and then we were a bit too far out in the ‘burbs for a city boy like me to recognize anything anymore, and a few moments later we had landed.

Helsinki greeted me with 5-degree temperatures, grey skies and a drizzle of rain. A friend had offered to pick me up at the airport and he told me that mere hours earlier, on what should be a summery May Day, it had actually snowed briefly. Welcome to Finland!

 

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SK572 CDG-ARL ?? seat 21F

CDG Terminal 1 is a deeply, deeply weird airport. From the brand new CDGVAL station, I entered on the lowest level of the barrel-shaped center, then walked around half the circle to find the SAS checkin. From there, an inclined, transparent tube with an escalator crossed across the barrel, just one of half a dozen tubes in the interior, depositing me on the other side. Here I had to get my lounge card and passport inspected, before being allowed into the duty-free shop section, where I got to walk some more radial shapes until I eventually managed to find the elevator up to the lounges. The pure white tunnels with rounded edges and colored mood lights looked promising, but the “iCare” rent-a-lounge used by SAS was remarkably crappy and full of cursing Adria pilots stuffing themselves with bags of crisps, the only form of sustenance available. Wifi cost money and there were no power plugs, but there was one lovably quirky feature: the cylinder-shaped TV room was equipped with personal headphone plugs build into the backs of the seats lining the edge, although with only one solitary TV in the center, the point of this escaped me entirely. Perhaps there was none, and it was just like everything else in T1, a thoroughly obsoleted vision of the future that felt like walking around a real-life rendition of Kubrick.

I left the lounge and then realized that the passport inspection I now had to go through again was the line separating Schengen (my flight) from non-Schengen (the lounge). Back on the treaty side, I headed for Satellite 7, reached by a way-cool giant travellator that first dips down, then levels off underground and then zooms back upward again. If (when?) they ever close T1, I’ll be glad to pay 10e just to enter the “CDG T1 Experience” — especially if they replace the few remaining human attendants with giant, unblinking red lamps with soft, reassuring voices. (“Let you into the lounge? I’m sorry, Dave, but I’m afraid I can’t do that. This free booze is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it. Your flight is delayed — I can feel it. My mind is going.”)

And as for the flight, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve been wavering for a while, but from this moment on it’s official: I’m leaving SAS Eurobonus. It’s a 2:20 mainline flight from Paris to Stockholm, and I’ve been a card-carrying SAS Eurobonus member for the better part of twenty years and a gold member for three. So here I am, my knees firmly pressed into the seat in front of me in the last seat on the bloody plane, the captain announces that flights into and out of Arlanda will be unpredictably delayed because air traffic control’s on a wildcat strike (not SAS’s fault, he says, and hence doesn’t apologize), and now they want me to pay three euros for a glass of ing water which I can’t even bring on the ing plane myself because of the ing EU-wide liquid regulations.  you very much, SAS, and a little  you to Arlanda ATC and EU regulators as well.

RTW2007: Saint-Malo, Mont Saint Michel, Lille, wherein our oysterous organizer racks up TGV miles to brave the piratical prices and rampaging hordes of Brittany and Normandy.

If there’s one thing the French do well, it’s trains. I boarded my TGV straight at CDG Terminal 2, met up with my friend N (of previous trip fame) onboard and, without even stopping in Paris, chugged directly to Rennes, the springboard into Brittany. A quick change there, one more hour on a regional train that was, if anything, more space-age than the TGV, and we landed in Saint-Malo, famed former corsair (that’s French for pirate, arr) hub and today one of Brittany’s top tourist draws. The walled city, or Intramuros, hosts what is almost certainly France’s highest concentration of creperies per square inch, with the little remaining space being taken up by expensive seafood restaurants and hotels, all of them overflowing with blue and white nautical kitsch.

Boats in the harbour Thoroughly awe-inspiring oysters

After a perfunctory tour of the city wall, with the collusion of my friend we set about on the main theme of the trip, that is, eating. On the menu were galettes (savoury crepes), scallops, cider and, above all, oysters. The coast of Carcale is one of France’s if not the world’s top oyster regions, and even fancy restaurants were selling them fresh for under a euro a piece. But N pulled off the culinary coup of the trip by spying a take-out window, offering big, chunky size #2 oysters for a scarcely credible 6 euros a dozen. On request, the shop even shelled them, laid them on an iced tray, threw in a sliced lemon and wrapped the whole thing in crinkly gift wrap plastic, without charging a cent extra. Until this day, I hadn’t been much of an oyster fan, but these, indeed, were something else.

The next day’s agenda was a day trip to Mont Saint Michel, a remarkable demonstration of what the French could come up with when threatened by something scary enough, like my forbears the Vikings. As a set of models inside the complex demonstrated, the Mont was once just a pyramidal pile of rock, which over the centuries was carved and constructed into a pyramidal fortress-cum-abbey. Surround it by some of the world’s most formidable tidal flats, replete with quicksand, and even the most determined berserker will opt for an easier target instead.

Mont Saint Michel and a parking lot Queue for l'Abbaye

Today, though, Mont Saint Michel’s defenses are wide open and the island is thus rampaged by ravenous hordes of tourists on a daily basis. The rather inaptly named Grande Rue, in particular, was so crowded you had to squeeze past all the Japanese tour groups snapping away at chefs in pseudo-medieval costumes whipping up omelettes, sold at 30 euros a piece (if you could manage to get a reservation). We then had to queue some more for the privilege of paying 10 euros to get into the Abbey, which was worth the visit though — after the Revolution, it was turned into a prison, and the cargo elevator operated by prisoners trudging inside a giant human hamster wheel could have been straight out of Sade’s demented fantasies. For lunch, we picked one of the less popular restaurants on the ramparts (which, on the eve of May Day, meant one which actually had two seats free) and tested the famed Mont Saint Michel omelette (fluffy but bland), the famed local sheep (near-inedibly stringy) and some more oysters (excellent).

The next morning we climbed back on the train and zipped through Rennes, Paris and past CDG another hour north to Lille, at the fulcrum of the Paris-London-Brussels train lines, where N is finishing up her studies. I was expecting a grimy industrial town filled with car factories and workers in overalls, a sort of proletarian Brussels, but nope, Lille’s cupcake-pretty central square wouldn’t look out of place in the 1st arrondissement of Paris and there were a lot of fancy boutiques, chic cafes, hip bars and fancy restaurants selling the same Carcale Bay oysters for five times the price. Unfortunately, it being May Day, almost all of them were closed and it took some serious legwork to find a place to eat dinner. It was packed to the rafters, of course, and we waited among an hour before we finally got a distinctly mediocre meal redolent of Belgian blandness wafting over the border. (There was one reminder of France though: the beer was tasteless.)

Lille Europe TGV station Coq Hardi at Grand Place Flowers and lovers

My last day in France dawned to warm and cloudless. Just for yucks, I tried Lille’s cute little toy metro for the few stops to the Lille Europe TGV station, surely one of the more striking modern train stations out there. A lunch of a stuffed baguette and Orangina, a few pictures of the French couple canoodling inside the modern sculpture outside (my kingdom for a telephoto lens!), and then it was time to wave buh-bye and hop on the TGV again.

AC870 YUL-CDG A330 seat 12C

And now, after Vancouver and Toronto, I completed my trio of Canada’s largest airports by visiting Montreal-Dorval-Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau. After the whole Mirabel fiasco, where Montreal invested umpty-ump dollars to build a state of the art airport in the middle of nowhere with no transport links and which is now used only by cargo and charters, I was expecting Dorval to be pretty sucky, but in fact it was a perfectly decent modern airport.

It’s always a pleasant surprise to expect a crummy B767 and get an only slightly scuffed A330 instead. Better yet, I’d been granted an aisle bulkhead seat, so I had decent legroom and could even try to stretch my legs out into the aisle (if at the risk of getting run over by carts).

AC is scrupulously bilingual, but this flight is (unsurprisingly) the first one where French goes ahead of English, and even the crew seemed to assume right off the bat that I’m francophone — which has yet to happen to me in Montreal.

I’m positive the “beef” entree I opted for today, a vaguely Chinese sorta-stirfry with noodles, was the same as the one I didn’t take on the NAS-YYZ flight…

 

RTW2007: Ottawa to Montreal, wherein our carping commentator burrows deep underground into the radiation-proof yet thoroughly paranoid Diefenbunker.

My week in Ottawa and Montreal passed in the usual hurly-burly of business meetings and family reunions, but one excursion is worth a mention: a trip to the village of Carp, pronounced ”Kearp”, home to the Central Emergency Government Headquarters, better known as the Diefenbunker. Built during the height of Cold War paranoia, this super-reinforced four-story underground bunker is where Canada’s government would have huddled had Armageddon arrived. It was finally retired as obsolete in the 1990s, and as their last task, the Feds ransacked the place, ripping out not just their super-secret Captain Crunch decoder rings but even the bunk beds in the barracks and the umpteen-ton generators each the size (and several times the weight) of a small car. But shortly before it was scheduled to be demolished, it was listed as a historic site and handed over to a dedicated bunch of local volunteers, who then spent the next decade reconstructing it into its 1960s prime. And “reconstructing” here didn’t mean slapping a few posters on the wall: for example, they “had” to haul back in those same umpteen-ton generators to restore the engine room, located on the 4th level below ground.

So one of the volunteers took two and half hours off his Sunday afternoon to give a guided tour going over the complex in lovingly obsessive detail (“…and these cafeteria chairs, produced from Outer Wumpscut, Manitoba by my uncle’s cousin Bob, are exactly identical to those that were used in the 1960s!”). And it really was something else to walk in through those doors and realize that, if nuclear holocaust had actually occurred, this claustrophobic cube of gray bureaucracy would’ve been the only place left standing in Canada. War games maps (some of them authentic) showed predicted impact sites for Soviet nukes: every Canadian city of significance (including metropoli like Thunder Bay) had a couple of megatons keyed in, and much of the endless prairie would have been contaminated by the fallout clouds from the hundreds of megatons aimed squarely at North Dakota (just what were the Yanks hiding there?). The only fly in the ointment was that pictures were not allowed: not because there was anything of military importance left, but because the volunteers tried to supplement the already steep entry fee by selling pictures. Boo.

 

AC460 YYZ-YOW B737? seat ?

YYZ’s Maple Leaf Lounge is the best AC lounge I’ve seen to date: modern, stylish, and (in a very un-American way) equipped with free grub of the salad-and-soup variety, a fully stocked free booze bar and, the crowning touch, free Internet.

No puking toddlers or harried families on this flight, it was pinstriped suits and one weird Nordic guy with a laptop and a “HACKER” T-shirt all the way. I had an exit row bulkhead aisle seat, which was nice, but on this B737(?) that means there was no window, just a teensy porthole to squint at. We took off on time, business class was served refreshment but we weren’t, and pretty soon we landed. But there are worse things than uneventful flights.

RTW2007: Toronto, wherein our tyrannical tourist cheats the TTC, minces around a pottery museum and makes mincemeat of a ginormous pile of Chinese food.

As downtown Toronto seemed to have no sensibly priced/available with points Marriotts, I spent the night at the Fairfield Inn Toronto Airport, which has drawn rave reviews (for an FI) on Flyertalk. I was bumped up into a thoroughly unnecessary if not unwelcome suite, had my Platinum water & pretzels waiting, and had an edible and not unreasonably priced meal at the cafe downstairs. (This is the hotel’s Achilles heel; there are absolutely zero other eating options in the vicinity, unless you can eat gravel or ball bearings.)

Next morning, earlier than I would have liked but still in a bit of a rush, I hit the gym, the buffet breakfast and the airport shuttle back to YYZ. Air Canada’s website states in no uncertain terms that baggage can only be checked in from 4 hours before a flight, but I tried my luck anyway and was pleasantly surprised that they took in my bag without the slightest quibble. My ATM luck was still zilch though, so I ended up changing US$40 cash into C$40.50, a rate that could charitably be described as ungenerous, but certainly does wonders for any Canadians with lingering currency inferiority complexes.

And then it was time to face the Toronto Transit Commission and try to make my way into the city. The TTC offers handy day passes and packs of five tokens, but they’re not available at the airport: your only choice is to fork out C$2.75 in exact change for a single fare, which is kinda tough if you’ve only got tens and two quarters. Luckily, the bus driver (who probably sees this all the time) let me board for free, and the Airport Rocket’s destination, Kipling station, had a token-o-mat.

Toronto Harbourfront and CN Tower Tall, Rich, Blonde and Available

Moose on the loose in Chinatown The C$3.50 Lunch

It was around 11 AM by the time I reached the city center, leaving me around 4 hours to sightsee. The Art Gallery of Ontario was closed, and the Royal Ontario Museum seemed rather to massive to tackle, so I tried the Gardiner Ceramic museum instead. It was small, but very nice (well, at least if you share my unmanly hobby of collecting Asian pottery), if fairly expensive at $12 a throw. Walking down through the U of Toronto grounds was free though, and I saw more attractive Indian women in one hour than I did during 6 months in Delhi. A loop through Chinatown, where I was delighted to find the Merlion Singaporean Restaurant yet bitterly disappointed to find it closed — I ended up wandering into a very Chinese shopping mall (you can always tell by the smell of dried seahorses wafting from the herbalist) and into the basement, where I correctly surmised there’d be cheap food aplenty. There were half a dozen stalls with an identical deal: pay C$3.50 and get your choice of 6 toppings piled on rice… and when they said pile, they weren’t kidding. Quality was queasy (pink mincemeat is never a good sign) and, while authentic, it was still terrible. Sometimes pinching pennies is a waste.

Then past the CN Tower to the Harbourfront, which with its flocks of seagulls (lakegulls?) and pointy buildings rather reminded me of Vancouver minus the mountains. A detour into the Design Exchange, a purposeful stroll through a small chunk of PATH, a photo of egregious misuse of umlauts (you talkin’ to me?) and then it was time to head back to the airport.

 

AC981 NAS-YYZ A319 seat 27F

NAS has a seriously bizarre boarding procedure. Once the boarding call comes, your boarding pass is checked, but kept intact, and you can’t board the plane: instead, you’re just moved to sit (or stand) in a corridor near the gates. Then, once everybody has been corralled up, the door is opened and you’re allowed to trek across to the plane, where your boarding card is finally collected. Is there a point to this?

After taking off, the aircraft did a 270 degree turn and flew over central Nassau and Paradise Island, rising up in its emerald majesty from the fathomless depths. Da-yamn.

They say Canada feels American if you arrive from Europe and European if you arrive from America, and boarding Air Canada flights fits the pattern. This A319 is old and crusty, but not as bad as mainline US carriers; seat pitch is bad, but not terrible; your meal is free, but booze still costs money; and there’s some inflight entertainment, just not much of it. Kind of a halfway house, in other words.

The plane arrived at Toronto more or less on time; unfortunately, Toronto was in the process of being hammered by a thunderstorm, so the pilot flew leisurely bumpy loops around it for an hour, allowing all passengers to get a good look at the impenetrable fog. Engrossed in my laptop, it didn’t even occur to me that others might find this distressing, but there was an audible groan when the pilot announced for the third time that we’d be on the ground in “20 minutes”, and only when landing (with distraction devices packed away) did I realize that the cabin was getting kinda whiffy. After landing, we spent another good half hour sitting around on tarmac, and the increasingly puke-laden atmosphere prompted the little girl in the seat in front of me to announce that she was going to be sick, even though the plane was perfectly stationary. On the way out, slowed down by an interminable shuffle of strollers and oversized carryons, we all got a good luck at the cause of the carnage: two green-faced toddlers and a spew of projectile vomit over any nearby seats. Welcome back to reality.

The new international wing of Toronto Pearson opened in January 2007, a mere 3 months before my first visit, so it’s nice and new-looking, although I do like the way they’ve nostalgically clung onto that fixture of North American airports, the big red dot LED panel, and used “dot matrix” fonts for spelling out gate numbers, baggage carousel numbers, etc. Immigration was fairly painless, with the agent spending most of his time looking for the fullest possible page in my passport and then clobbering a Korean stamp with his maple-leaved overprint, but baggage took ages to arrive.

I then had my first suspicion that this airport wasn’t quite up to its appearance when I had some trouble locating the exit from the baggage carousels. My suspicions deepened when the ATM manifestly refused to be where the map said it should be, and none of the three I eventually found would accept Visa Plus (which is, after all, only the world’s most common system) despite wanting $2 service fees. Every American airport has a handy panel of courtesy phones from where you can call your hotel; but YYZ doesn’t. Hotel shuttle signage was absent, but I consulted the map (of missing ATM fame) and navigated my way to the basement, which had a lonely looking stand outside. A call to the hotel on my own dime then revealed that the shuttle stops at “S5”; I peered around quizzically, unsuccessfully looking for numbers or letters on the stands scattered about, until I realized that the concrete pillars holding up the building were numbered high up, and “S5” was waaaaaaaaay at the other end, near the stand labeled “Group Drop-Off Only”.

Once I eventually schlepped myself to the other end, I lucked out and caught the shuttle almost immediately, and when I whined about how difficult it was to find, the driver commiserated: “Yeah, everybody else says that too.” Sigh.

 

RTW2007: Bahamas, wherein our piratical plunderer pretends to be James Bond, goes iguana-spotting and gets his timbers thoroughly shivered with a complimentary double exfoliation treatment.

Nassau‘s Lynden Pindling International Airport is surprisingly run-down and ramshackle, but unlike coldly formal San Juan, at least they welcome you into the immigration hall with a live ”goombay” band tooting out tropical numbers. (No free pink drink service this time, though.) After being stamped in and congratulated on coming in all the way from Singapore, I located my bag from a host of carousels, all with LED scrollers reading “BAHAMAS — IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME!!!” (as opposed to telling which flight’s bags were where, and just how bad was it before, anyway?). My host was waiting for me and we zoomed off across the island.

Pier at Saddleback Cay Iguana at the beach

Path to the beach at the Ocean Club Marina Village, near Atlantis Resort

Now, I like to think I’m not much given to effusive gushing, but the Bahamas are, quite simply, the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been to. I was initially thrown off by the comparative dryness, quite unlike the tropical humidity of Puerto Rico (or Singapore), but the beaches are just jaw-dropping: white sand, crystal clear water, and an unearthly hue of aqua quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before where they meet. Add in pastel pink government buildings, lots of palm trees and a laid-back vibe that felt far more Caribbean than Puerto Rico, and the realization that it’s actually more pleasant to be out and about when humidity isn’t 100% all the time, and I think I fell in love.

Beaches aside, my Bahamas experience was rather significantly improved from the average package tourist’s lot by me managing to inveigle an invitation to the mansion of a local resident and his lovely wife, located in the ultra-exclusive Ocean Club Estates (part of and next to the Ocean Club, where Casino Royale was filmed) on the aptly named Paradise Island, best known as the home of the gargantuan and exceedingly Vegas-esque Atlantis resort. And as luck would have it, the owner’s gorgeous twentysomething daughter C and her equally attractive best friend R were in town, and willingly took up the task of showing me around. And oh, it was brutal: cocktails at the Ocean Club, a spot of gambling at Atlantis (which proved that my luck did have its limits), checking out the golf course and the yacht, being stuffed full of amazing homemade food, lazing about the pool and hot tub with a cold Kalik or two, and shivering our timbers with the Pirate Museum and dark & stormy games of Dread Pirate (arr!). On the last day, we went on a full-day excursion out to the Exuma islands, which had yet more impossibly picturesque beaches, snorkeling, rum punch, shark-feeding, iguana-spotting and two complimentary one-hour Salty Spray(tm) exfoliation treatments, lovingly administered at 30 knots by dual 200-hp engines on the way in and out.

And then came the sad moment of goodbye and a harsh return to reality at Nassau’s remarkably charmless international terminal, which serves the (few) non-US international flights that depart from the Bahamas, including mine. Arriving a good two hours before the flight, check-in and security were completed quickly, but once through there’s only a distinctly unappetizing snack shop left to entertain you. Fortunately, my laptop managed to snag a Internet signal and I was spared from having to entertain myself by watching dust gather on the shelves of the closed gift shop.

US1053 CLT-NAS B737-400 seat 13A

In the gloom of rain CLT looked like any other older American airport, all scuffed linoleum, white-on-black signage and acres and acres devoted to parking, but next morning proved sunnier and the terminal looked rather more modern and welcoming. US Airways made amends by checking me in speedily (although I had to assist the check-in lady with punching in my EuroBonus card) and allowing me into the US Airways Club which, to damn it with faint praise, was the best I’ve seen in the USA to date. Clean, spacious, free ice water, a powerplug-equipped cubicle to compute in and more free T-Mobile goodness was all I needed.

Today’s airplane was a bog-standard regional B737, which didn’t even pretend to offer frills like headphones or movies for this two-hour flight. The seat pitch was as bad as previously, but my seat was a window over the wing and thus a marginal improvement on yesterday, especially as I had no seatmates in my 3-seat row and was thus able to sprawl out freely.

No matter how many times I’ve done it, I still love the first few minutes of flight. Hitting the throttle, feeling the aircraft accelerate to Ludicrous Speed(tm), the moment of takeoff — and then as the aircraft banks, twists and turns on its way to its flight path and level, the cabin moving around in three dimensions, you remember that this is not a bus and you’re flying, an idea so magical and captivating that the entire state of North Carolina still commemorates the first successful attempt on its license plates.

Signs you’re in a country where people don’t do too much international travel: the pilot spends 10 minutes announcing line by line how to fill in the Bahamas immigration form and how to fill out the US Customs form for the return leg.