Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Breakfast is included if you are staying on the Executive floor of the Nile Hilton in Cairo. You can get practically every imaginable breakfast dish, but I decided to be very healthy -- a plate of foul, steamed vegetables, and a bowl of freshly cut fruit.
As expected, no pork products are served. The bacon and sausages are all made of beef.
I had been working in Chicago with Dr. A. We had an evening flight on the way back to Baltimore from Chicago's Midway airport on Southwest Airlines. The funny thing about this story is that Dr. A finds my bump habit just a little irritating. Sometimes, he will growl, "If you applied all that brain power to making money the old fashioned way, you wouldn't need to get bumped all the time." Actually, I rather enjoy the admonishment as I am flattered by the compliment coming from a man with considerable intellectual horsepower! I usually explain to him that even if I were rich, I would still go for the bumps. I just like the sport!
Anyway, Southwest called people to the desk, and offered $200 (in vouchers) plus the cost of your ticket. Of course, Dr. A was not interested, but I bounced to the counter almost as if it were a reflex reaction! So they took me off a flight that going to depart at 6:00 pm, and gave me a seat on a flight at about 6:30 that stopped in Cleveland (might have been Cincinnati). The funny thing about this bump was that Dr. A's non-stop flight from Midway got delayed. So I arrived back in Baltimore first with my precious vouchers before he did! I later used them to fly two of the Moyeys out to Oakland, California, when we took a spring break visit to see the Napa Valley.
Excellent bump with a funny twist! I would love to hear readers' bump stories -- please comment!
Eyemask, toothbrush, refreshment towel, toothpaste, socks, and the bag itself on the right.
One of the benefits of traveling business class is the amenity kit that you receive when you fly. These kits vary considerably in quality, and frequently the most valuable item is the bag used to contain all the goodies. I usually travel with a lot of small pieces of electronic equipment, and I find these bags can be useful travel accessories to hold things such as your mobile phone and its charger.
A good amenity kit for business class passengers is very obvously not a priority for Lufthansa. The bag is a light nylon/muslin bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, an eyemask, and a refreshment towel. This is a shame especially because my favorite business class amenity kit is from a Lufthansa trip that I took in 1998!
Not surprisingly, the best amenity kits come from the usual suspects -- Singapore Airlines (SQ), Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, and British Airways. Sometimes, airlines have a brand theme surrounding their kits. For example, I recently received a very nice Bulgari kit during a First Class flight on Singapore Airlines, and a Clarins kit when I flew First Class on Lufthansa.
Virgin gives you a better goodie bag in economy!
Monday, January 30, 2006
Steaks is one of the restaurants in the very lavishly appointed new Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo. Situated by the Nile near the Hyatt, Intercontinental, and the Nile Hilton, the Four Seasons stands out as the poshest hotel in this area of very posh hotels.
There are a variety of hotels, but Dr. A knew that this would be a good choice, and he had been there before. He was especially interested in my trying the tenderloin of Australian Wagyu Beef, but, unfortunately it was no longer on the menu. We had the tenderloin of Australian Angus Beef instead. It came in two sizes: 180 grams ($31) or 240 grams ($42). We both had the the smaller size -- a wise choice because you really do get a lot to eat at this restaurant because they bring you a dish of pâté to start with. It comes with a delicious loaf of crusty home made bread, little pearl onions and cornichons. Then came a bowl of cream of carrot soup -- tasting of real carrots with a dollop of cream on top. (These starters are included in the price of the main course.) The main course, the steak, really was memorable. I ordered mine very rare, and it was so tender that you could slice it with the back of the knife. But unlike many very tender steaks it was full of flavor. We had a side order of very good gratin potatoes ($1.75) and some sautéed garlic mushrooms ($1.75).
For dessert, I had an amazing chocolate assortment ($5.25), which consisted of a little chocolate cake, a chocolate mousse, and some chocolate ice cream. Dr. A went for subtlety and had a Lemon Meringue Pie ($5.25), which was good, rich, and had crispy pastry as its base.
Our wine experience was interesting at the Four Seasons. A couple of years ago on my last trip here I was warned that Egyptian wine was uniformly awful, but Dr. A encouraged me to order Château des Rêves 2005 ($31), which is described as a Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was pleasant enough though I found it not at all like a Cabernet at all. It was more like a Beaujolais! When the waiter asked me if I liked it, I told him that I didn't like it all that much, and he suggested bringing us a Cape Bay from South Africa ($31), but bottled in Egypt. This wine was passable though it had a strange taste of fresh cork.
The wine list was fairly comprehensive, but, imported wine in Egypt are very expensive indeed. For example, if you were in the mood for Champagne (and you really liked your guest), you could get Cristal Roederer for ($1046) or Brunello di Montalcino from Castello Banfi, 1999, for $523. Even wines that are relatively inexpensive in other countries were very highly priced. For example, Jacob's Creek Merlot, 2003, would set you back $104!
Other items on the menu included Dover Sole ($24), Grilled salmon steak ($15.70), Australian veal cutlet ($33), or grilled lamb chops ($18.30).
All in all, this was a very good meal in a delightful setting. The traveler is well advised to watch wine prices since they can set you back a small fortune even if you are drinking fairly modest wines.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
As usual, my boat was full of Egyptian families, and everyone was obviously looking forward to the ride. The women varied in their dress reflecting how strictly they interpreted the Islamic faith. At one extreme, there was a woman with only a scarf to distinguish her from a woman typically dressed in the western world. Another wore a light scarf and was flirting with an admirer. Another had hidden every part of her body except for her eyes, and she was trying to keep two naughty little boys under control. The gentleman seated next to me was taking pictures of his children with the camera on his digital phone.
Then he took a picture of me. I smiled and thanked him. Then I took one of him. Encouraged by our bond of digital photography, he said, "My name is Omar. Welcome to Egypt!" I told him my name. Then he said "Omar" again. "Hello, Omar," I said. "You know -- like Omar Sharif," said Omar, "You know Omar Sharif!" "Yes," I cried, "Dr. Zhivago!" "Dr. Zhivago," roared Omar. And for a few moments, we sat nodding at each other, smiling and ocasionally muttering "Dr. Zhivago," the second bond that had connected me to my new Egyptian friend.
Early in our relationship Omar felt compelled to educate me regarding the permissible limits of photgraphy. Omar took my camera and pointed at the children. The gesture obviously meant, "Feel free to photograph the children." And I did. Then Omar took my camera again and pointed it some of the women and waved his finger across his throat. The meaning was quite unambiguous in its message, "Photograph the kids all you like, but, if you decide to photograph the women as well, then someone will have to slit your throat. The women giggled. Perhaps they thought Omar was a goofball, but I liked that in Omar -- tough but fair.
Plus I thought the deal was fine, and I opted not to photograph the women in exchange for the opportunity to sleep in my hotel room that night with my throat in its original pristine condition.
As the boat was nearing the end of the trip, I wondered idly whether this boat was like an airplane with everyone paying different fare, and I, the foreigner, had paid more than everyone else. But by that time I was too happy to care. Besides, what would I have done with the change?
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Dr. A said that he had tried their regular champagne and he liked it more than the Brut Rose, but we both ageed that it was excellent anyway. In some ways, it reminded us of a Burgundy -- it must be pretty much 100% Pinot Noir. Its taste was reminiscent of stawberries and the tiny bead-like bubbles suggested cream! By the end of the bottle, we agreed that this was stawberries and cream in liquid form!
Some of my friends have suggested that I write about something that I have been very successful with -- getting voluntarily bumped by airlines. In this first posting, I hope to explain some of the principles I follow. In subsequent posts, I will talk about some of my exploits, successes, and failures.
Getting bumped for the purposes of this article refers to voluntarily giving up your seat for a flight because the flight is overbooked. The usual reward for doing this is a voucher for a free flight and a guaranteed seat on a later flight. Other benefits include meals and accommodation if you are going to be delayed for more than a couple of hours. Getting upgraded to business or first class is not uncommon. (I have been upgraded a number of times as a "thank you" for volunteering even when the airline has not needed my seat.)
1. Become customer focused. When there is a possibility of being bumped, you have a commodity (an airline ticket) that has risen in value. It is now worth more to the airline than you paid for it, and the airline is expressing interest in buying back your ticket. Some people initiate the process by talking about their “rights.” Many of these rights apply to involuntary bumps. During the negotiation stage, you have no special rights. You are simply a potential vendor and the airline is your customer. There is a lot of competition because other people want to be bumped too. So, in order to make the sale, you need to apply that basic business principle – be easy to do business with.
2. Schedule your trip so that getting bumped is easy. The opportunities are rare so you raise the possibility of being bumped if you organize your life so that you always have a little extra time. If you are going to a wedding, for example, fly out the day before so that you can still be there even if there is a delay. (This is sensible practice even if you have no intention of getting bumped.)
3. Carry airline timetables with you. If you know what the options are, you can often help the airline staff by suggesting flights and routes that may not have occurred to the person you are working with. (I have the schedules of the major airlines in my Palm.)
4. Check in early. Frequently, the first person to volunteer gets to the top of a list.
5. Use an airline that routinely overbooks its planes. I have had bumps from British Airways, Delta, United, Lufthansa, Southwest, US Airways, and Virgin. But some airlines, like JetBlue never overbook their flights.
6. Book flights that might be full. Holiday times are especially good. All my family took trips at Thanksgiving for about five years. The first trip was funded by vouchers from a bump, and that kept us going for five consecutive years. We stopped only because one of us decided she wanted to be home for Thanksgiving one year. (Also, problems mount during the day so you stand a better chance of being bumped on an afternoon or an early evening flight than a morning one. You will almost never be bumped on a "red-eye" from the West coast to the East coast.)
7. Be flexible. If you say you are willing to accept any route, any airline, and any schedule to get to your destination, it makes life easier for your customer (the airline) and you increase the possibility of making a sale.
8. Where possible, use carry-on bags only. You can get a bump if you have checked luggage, but it makes life easier for the airline if they don’t have to retrieve your luggage. Airlines will almost never bump you during a layover if you have checked in baggage.
9. Be available. At the final moment, the airline needs you to confirm your desire to take a bump. If you are sipping champagne in the Singapore Airlines lounge, they will ask the next person in line. (Yes, I did make that mistake once!) So you need to stay close to the desk and respond promptly if your name is called.
10. Be nice. The airline staff are working under a lot of pressure and they need all the help and support they can get. It is your job to satisfy your customer. So, if you want extras (like an upgrade), ask nicely.
11. Ask for a dollar value voucher rather than a free ticket. You will often get one. The advantages are that you can use the voucher towards buying an international flight whereas most American carriers give vouchers for domestic travel only. You frequently increase your buying power with a dollar value voucher. For example, I have bought two tickets for a $400 voucher. Finally, you earn mileage and credits toward elite status if you use vouchers as opposed to free passes. (That is how I have maintained my Premier Executive (gold) status with United for so many years.)
12. If you do get bumped, it is sometimes more fun to get away from the airport while you wait for your rescheduled flight. Sometimes, I have taken the hotel shuttle to an airport hotel. I spent the voucher that I was given for food at the hotel and made use of the pool after my meal.
The solution I have often found is to rent a car. I get someone to drop me off at BWI the day before and then I drop the car off at Dulles the next day. I have used both Budget and Hertz to do this and there was no drop-off charge. The price varies greatly, but I have paid as little as $18 (on a weekend) and as much as $60 during the week. Either way, it is cheaper than taking a cab and you can travel on your own schedule, eliminating the anxiety of wondering whether the cab is going to show up and the tension associated with calling the company to ask why the cab hasn't appeared. I have always booked the cheapest possible car, but I have always been given a seemingly randomly-picked much larger car. I suspect that they give you any car that the rental company wants to move from BWI to IAD.
On my most recent trip I decided to try a local company, Columbia Airport Shuttle. (Telephone: 410 309 0006). The driver showed up at the precise time in a new and clean Lincoln Town Car. He helped me with my luggage, drove efficiently and safely, and he dropped me off right in front of the part of the airport where Lufthsansa has its desk. The cost was $85. This was a good experience.
On short trips, I use the long-term parking at Dulles although this cramps my style when returning from a trip where good wine is served!
I would love to hear from readers to see what your experience has been. To summarize, my favorite (and cheapest) way is the car rental method. Columbia Airport Shuttle was good. Parking is OK if you keep yourself wine-free on your flight!
Friday, January 27, 2006
The thing that really thrilled me on this flight was having an Internet connection. I was even able to phone Iran using a (Vonage) soft phone from my seat! That is so cool! I also posted the blog entry to say that I was posting from the air. Sorry!
The bit that is really fantastic about flying Lufthansa in Business Class is the food and the wine. Lufthansa has a program called Star Chefs, which uses the recipes of the chef of a well known restaurant. On this flight, chef was Joachim B. Splichal from Patina in Los Angeles, California. The style was a sort of California mix of styles. Spichal's blurb in the menu says that his emphasis is on the freshest ingredients.
I started my dinner with "Grilled Divers Scallops on Jicama Salad." The ingredients did taste fresh and the salad was nice and crunchy. (A nice touch is that recipes are enclosed with the menu so I think I will make this dish when I get back home.) Then I had a salad with soggy croutons and a dressing called Naturally Fresh, which appeared to be neither natural nor fresh! My main course was marvellous. It was "Seared Striped Sea Bass served with Marcona Almonds, Cauliflowers Florets, and Madras Curry Lobster Emulsion." My only complaint about that dish was that I really did not tasted any lobster, but it was very good. The fish was nice and moist, but not overdone, and the sauce was subtle -- spicy but without being overpowering. Alternatives offered included "Olive Oil Poached Breast of Chicken offered with Morel Marsala Cream Sauce" and "Portobello Mushroom and Pappardelle Pasta accompanied by aged parmesan and cherry tomatoes with basil." The menu really went overboard with these detailed descriptions!
After my main course I had Gruyere, Brie and Goat Cheese followed by a mediocre Pear Tart Tartin with a soggy bottom. (Perhaps the fault was less in the cooking than in the storage.) Chocolates were served with liqueurs and very good coffee to round off the meal. Good coffee on flights seems to be more common these days.
Before landing, I had a good breakfast consisting of a plate of fresh fruit, a piping hot omelette with bacon and potatoes, and an assortment of bread, croissants, and muffins were offered. The other choice for breakfast was a "Cold Gourmet Plate" with breast of turkey, salami, camembert, and cream cheese.
Service was friendly and efficient. The plane started and left punctually without incident or significant turbulence during the flight. Overall, an enjoyable flight in what has become a rather dated plane.
Lufthansa also does well by providing passengers with a good range of reading material. We were offered the Washington Post, the Financial Times, and a range of magazines. (Readers of German naturally had a much broader selection.)
(To avoid this article going on and on for ever, I will discuss the wine in a separate posting. It was very, very good! I will also add some pictures that I took of the food. I am in a hotel without a way of moving pictures from my camera to the computer.)
Thursday, January 26, 2006
By the way, the Champagne is Duval Leroy Brut, and it is delicious. And no plastic in Lufthansa's Business class!
On a more serious note, I find that the ability to be connected in flight is wonderful. The price was about $30 for the whole flight and $10 for a portion (I can't remember how long) with Connexion by Boeing as the ISP. I got it for free because I was given a bundle of 30-minute access cards when I was flying in Lufthansa's first class from Munich to Washington in December.
The other thing that makes working in the air possible is that there was power provided to every seat. (I don't know whether they get this economy.) This is especially valuable to me as I think the battery on my laptop is next to useless.
The nice thing is that you don't need special adapters as the plug is universal although it seemed to work more reliably when I put my American flat pronged plug into an adapter with round prongs. I was also carrying my headphones and speaker so that I could make IP calls from the seat.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Sticking to one airline makes it easier to maintain elite status, whch brings all sorts of benefits, including shorter lines at airports, access to airport lounges when traveling internationally, and double miles if you get to the Premier Executive (gold) level. This means that if you fly only about three times to Europe, you get a free trip.
United has a pretty wide national network. My home airport is Baltimore (BWI), and sometimes flying is a little inconvenient. Sometimes I take the time to route myself through Chicago (ORD), and sometimes I just go to Washington, Dulles (IAD).
United is an international airline and a member of the Star Alliance, and you can use your frequent flier miles on wonderful airlines, including Lufthansa, Austrian, Thai, BMI, and Varig (amongst others).
United flight attendants are usually friendly, accommodating, and kind to passengers (in most cases).
Frequent fliers get access to an economy plus section with more leg room.
You can get more frequent flier miles by shopping at Safeway.
They are pretty generous if you get a bump -- I have often been given $400 (in vouchers) domestically, and $800 internationally. (JetBlue, for example, never gives you the opportunity to take a bump.)
They have a late afternoon flight (UA 925) from London (LHR) to Washington (IAD)
They have a late night flight (UA 924) from Washington to London so that it is possible to do an honest day's work and leave the country that evening.
They give you full credit for your frequent flier miles even if you are flying on a highly discounted ticket (unlike Singapore Airlines and British Airways).
There are some barbaric things that you have to put up with. For example, they expect you to drink wine out of plastic glasses, but I bring my own glass! The United Red Carpet clubs are crowded and have limited facilities. But if you live in the United States, you pretty much have to stick with one American carrier, and United serves a purpose for me.
Most of all, I have had many many free trips, inlcuding a trip to Hawaii (for two), several trips to Europe, a trip to Iran and back, and several trips from the East coast to the West coast, a trip (for four) to Costa Rica, and a trip to Florida (for four).
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
The truth about Chenin Blanc though, is that it is not always sweet. Chenin Blanc-based wines range from fairly dry to intensely sweet botrytis affected wine that can be wonderful with foie gras!
The Guy Saget Vouvray, 2004 is a fresh, fruity well made wine with crisp apple overtones. It is a delight to drink this cheerful and lively wine. There seemed to be almost a hint of a sparkle at the front of my tongue. I bought it for about $10. However, for anyone looking only for very dry white wine, avoid it. This wine is well made and to my mind delicious, but it is definitely not dry though certainly not so sweet that it would ever be classified as a dessert wine. Guy Saget makes a lot of different Loire grapes, and if the quality of the other offerings are as good as this, it will certainly be a producer that I will continue to seek out. Recommended!
If you find the Guy Saget Vouvray hard to find, but would like to try a Chenin Blanc, you can often find one from Dry Creek Vineyards. Also, I have enjoyed a lot of Chenin Blanc from South Africa where it is called Steen.
Sunday, January 22, 2006
If you read Robert Parker on this estate, he really does not seem to like it very much. In 1991, his comments included, "Overpriced, Heavy reliance on filtration rob this wine of much concentration" He adds that it is "relatively light, indifferent, yet commercially correct style."
I usually find Robert Parker's comments very helpful. Usually, when he likes a wine, I like it as well, and I often dislike the ones he dislikes! Perhaps there are a lot of people who feel the same way and that is why he is so influential. In fact, I enjoy his comments more than almost anyone else except for Jancis Robinson, but I digress. The point is that I like this estate, and I have had a number of good wines from here. It is a big producer so its wines are easy to find.
La Cardonne is a cru bourgeois wine in the Medoc. It was bought by the Rothschild family in 1973. This 240-acre vineyard is planted with 58% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 7% Cabernet Franc. (Most Medoc wines are dominantly Cabernet Sauvignon.)
Of course, many people think that 2000 in Bordeaux was the best year since 1961 so I always get a little excited when I open a bottle from this vintage even after reading Parker's "put down" remarks. The Wine Spectator gave this wine 89, a score I would agree with -- if this wine were an essay, it would get a strong B, and nothing would persuade me to nudge my score up into the A range.
The color is deep and slightly purple. It tasted like very classical Bordeaux. I would like to find out the proportion of grapes used in this particular vintage -- I sort of doubt whether it has as much as 58% Merlot although you could definitely detect the Merlot with the hints of chocolate and that sense of smooth velvet that you often find with good Merlot. Good dark fruit flavors with firm well integrated tannins. I liked this wine very much! Recommended. It was $18 at the Iron Bridge wine company.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
504 South Ann Street
For a Google map, click here.
Please note that Peter's Inn is closed on Mondays.
For the second time in as many days, I had a terrific meal in Baltimore. This evening I met my friend, Mr. T and we went to Peter's Inn in the Fells Point district of Baltimore. Peter's Inn looks like just a little neighborhood bar, but it has always intrigued me because, according to the Zagat guide, it has one of the highest ratings for food in Baltimore.
In the past, I have been to Peter's Inn on the weekend, and it has been rather crowded, but tonight we walked in at about 7:30 and we were actually able to pick a table. Mr. T had a starter of "bar-b-que shrimp and cheese grits with mango-chipotle bar-b-que," which looked wonderful. I decided not to have a starter and began my meal with the fresh and nicely dressed house salad -- good crisp lettuce!
For my main course, I had "beet crusted day boat scallops with bacon beurre blanc, black lentils and diced roasted beets." This dish (about $21) is really tasty. Bacon complements scallops wonderfully. This dish is rather clever because there are so many different contrasting flavors that go really well together. Mr. T picked the Filet Mignon ($25), which he ordered very rare -- I have had that before, and it really is one of the better steaks I have had in Baltimore. I was also tempted by the tuna tartare, but I am sticking to a resolution to eat less and exercise more! All of the main courses include salad and a thick slice of garlic/parsley bread.
The wine list was mostly good and relatively interesting. I wondered whether we should drink a steen (Chenin Blanc) from South Africa, but, in the end we had a very good Oregon Pinot Noir ($35), whose name, I am afraid to say, I left in the restaurant!
When we asked about dessert, we were told rather abruptly that there was "Nothing!" I found that rather funny so we settled for a somewhat second-rate coffee.
This is a very good and friendly neighborhood restaurant. I have on occasion popped in for a drink at the bar and an appetizer, but it really is worth staying for the full dinner. Another great restaurant in Baltimore! (Peter's Inn does not take reservations.)
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Fortunately, Baltimore has a good restaurant that has all of these criteria, and I had lunch there today. They offer a fixed price lunch for $20, and that includes three courses, iced tea, or coffee. Usually they offer soup or salad to start with. The salad is a mesclun green salad with reggiano cheese and a red wine vinaigrette. The soup is always delicious -- I remember once having a marvellous artichoke and reggiano cheese soup to start. The main courses include a croque monsieur with frites (the best in town), a grilled chicken salad, pan seared salmon over a baby spinach salad, a shrimp and zucchini, smoked salmon, or a cheese plate. Desserts change, but I have had excellent chocolate mousse at this restaurant.
Today, I had the smoked salmon. I love the way they grill it -- it's never over done, but always juicy with the meat still translucent. The baby spinach was fresh and crunchy with a great vinaigrette dressing to complement it.
As you might expect, dinner prices are a bit higher and include everything you would expect at a typical French bistro, including Moules a la Provencale ($9.00), Onion Soup ($7.00), Escargots ($10.00), and Baked Oysters (11.00). I have had all of these starters at one time or another and liked them all.
Main courses include Steak au Poivre ($19.00), Grilled Salmon ($19.00), and Confit de Canard ($17.00). But my absolute favorite dish at Petit Louis is their Cassoulet, which unfortunately is not always on the menu.
The wine list is interesting. It includes mostly French wines from all over the country -- Loire, Alsace, Cahors, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, etc. Prices are reasonable. For example, you can get a Domaine Pichot Vouvray for $26.00. They also have more expensive wines, such as Krug champagne ($215.00) and big names like Chateau Pavie, 2000, which goes for $470.00!
Petit Louis is a very nice restaurant. I just wish people wouldn't pronounce that final "t," which make Petit Louis sound like a girl! I think perhaps this is my favorite place to eat in Baltimore.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
On a recent trip to London, the plastic around the handle broke. I took it to the Samsonite factory shop where I bought it, and they were pleased to honor the warranty. I just had to pay $10 for shipping, and they did not even ask for a receipt. They even lent me another suitcase in case they can't get it back to me! I love that kind of service and will buy Samsonite again.