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  • #16
    April 7, 2004
    Vancouver to Kelowna to Edmonton
    WestJet 37 Economy Class
    737-200 C-GUWJ Seat 11D
    1200n – 315p Flight time: :34/:49

    The Vancouver airport offers plenty of shops and eateries so after changing and cleaning up, I had no problem finding a cup of coffee and a good veggie omelette at an establishment called the Pacific Market. Of course, since I’d located a table next to an electrical outlet, I also was able to put in some time on this Trip Report, now at over 10,000 words and approaching novella length.

    My flight to Edmonton today is aboard Canadian low fare success story WestJet. WestJet got its start back in 1996 flying three 737-200s between Vancouver, Calgary, Kelowna, Winnipeg and Edmonton. Look how it’s grown since! It will be my 110th airline flown.

    I was surprised to find only a couple of people being served at the WestJet check in area. I was quickly checked in by a very cheerful guy who combined small talk about my travels in Canada with asking all the questions we used to hear in America until a year or so ago: Did you pack this bag yourself? Has it been out of your control in any public places since then? Would a person intending something dastardly answer those questions honestly? How would one know if he were lying? In any event, I was issued a receipt upon which my exit row seat number and gate information was printed. I then headed downstairs to the Post Office to buy stamps and post my cards. Interestingly, the post office was located in a 7-11 store and was apparently operated by the 7-11 staff as well.

    I picked WestJet’s flight 37 for two reasons. One – it operated via Kelowna, an airport I’d never flown through and two – it utilized a 737-200, an aircraft fast disappearing from the fleets of most American carriers. The aircraft for my flight today was an ex-Britannia machine that had served four airlines before finally ending up with WestJet. This aircraft was just over thirty years old.

    As for me, this would be my 259th flight aboard a 737-200. The 737 is the most popular commercial jetliner ever built and as a result of this I’ve logged a combined total of almost half a million miles on all its variants. Heck, I’ve logged just over 125,000 miles on Alaska Airlines 737-400s alone! I should imagine if any of you frequent flyers were to keep logs, you’d find you’ve probably logged an impressive amount of mileage on this little workhorse as well.

    So far as I know, amongst scheduled carriers only America West, Delta, Southwest, Alaska, Aloha and maybe Frontier still operate them. Powered by noisy and comparatively uneconomical early generation Pratt and Whitney JT8Ds, I don’t see this airplane staying in most larger airlines’ fleets for all that much longer.

    North of the border in Canada however, the 737-200 is operated by a number of airlines including Air Canada’s Zip, Air North, Canadian North, Air Yukon, First Air and CanJet in addition to WestJet.

    Boarding was by row number and as today’s mid-day flight over to Kelowna was only about half full, we were all onboard and seated in no time. Seating was of course all one class and although I had an exit row, the seat pitch looked to be about 32”. I found it interesting that this aircraft still bore traces of the original wide bodied interior conversion kits that airlines started installing in the early seventies. It sported a hybrid arrangement with the sidewalls and ceiling reflecting the original kit while the overhead storage compartments had obviously been modified to make them larger. The original overhead storage compartments weren’t designed for the bulky roll-on bags so commonplace today.

    Despite the short thirty four minute flight over to Kelowna, the four Flight Attendants provided a surprising amount of service. It began with an offering of coffee, followed by a choice of boxed juices – either apple or orange. Finally, an FA came down the aisle offering packets of cookies and almonds! Remember, this was just a thirty four minute flight. On a low fare airline!

    The city of Kelowna is beautifully set amidst the rolling hills of the Okanagan region of British Columbia. Unfortunately, my aisle seat did not allow me to fully appreciate the pretty approach, but what I could see certainly looked worthy of a return visit on one of my next drives between Alaska and the Lower 48.

    As expected, the airport in Kelowna wasn’t all that busy but I did spot a Purolator 727-100 parked over at Kelowna Flightcraft that was equipped with the Valpar winglets. We spent maybe 20 minutes on the ground and for me the most impressive thing I saw was when not only the Flight Attendants but also the Captain pitched in to help the two Kelowna based ground staff in cleaning the aircraft. I just don’t see this happening anytime soon over at Air Canada!

    We were almost completely full for the forty nine minute flight into Edmonton. Service on this sector differed only in that a packet of pretzel mix was added to our selection of snacks from the basket. Baggage was delivered promptly and based upon this experience, I’d have to say WestJet will be serving Canada’s air transport needs with low fares and quality inflight service for many years to come. By contrast, Air Canada’s future looks decidedly bleaker, something that airline’s management and employees need only take a collective look in the mirror to see who’s principally to blame for their woes.

    Edmonton’s main airport is a good 30km out of town, so any hopes of catching an inexpensive city bus into the city quickly evaporated. $13.00 and 40 minutes later, I was dropped off at my home for the night, the Coast Edmonton Plaza Hotel, booked via Priceline for only $38.00 plus taxes.

    Later, after a shower and an update on the NHL Playoffs, I headed downstairs to meet fellow FTer altaflyer. We had a good dinner and chat at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant before taking an impromptu tour of the provincial government buildings plaza where Peter works. He’s got a fair bit of travel coming up himself, not only this weekend but in the months ahead. Ah… the lives we frequent flyers lead…

    Don’t I know by now that time flies when you’re having fun and suddenly it was 11:00pm and we both had to call it a night. I set a wake up call for 7:00am and proceeded to sleep soundly atop what may well be the most comfortable mattress I’ve ever slept upon!


    • #17
      April 8, 2004
      Edmonton to Vancouver
      ViaRail Canada First Class
      “The Canadian” Car 121 Berth 2

      Once upon a time, Edmonton’s train station was located in the heart of downtown – where a train station ought to be. Although I never did actually see the old station, I can only imagine that it had to be more impressive than the architecturally uninspired structure that now serves as the ViaRail station. Unfortunately, it was decided that the land upon which the old station sat could be put to better - read more profitable - uses. Sadly, this is an increasingly common scenario in many North American cities as train travel continues to lose much of its luster and business against the growing availability of faster and more affordable transportation options.

      Still, for those of us who still like getting there as much as being there, ViaRail’s world famous streamliner The Canadian allows one the opportunity to get there in style.

      Originally operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway, The Canadian got its start back in 1955, not long after the introduction of brand new American built stainless steel cars manufactured by the Budd Company, out of Red Lion, PA. One of the principal attractions of these new cars was the innovative placement a glass dome atop the roof of some cars. In fact, the inspiration for the dome car came from an executive of General Motor’s diesel locomotive manufacturing division while he was riding in the cab of one of his new diesels through Colorado’s colorful Glenwood Canyon.

      My first ride in a dome car came as a kid traveling up to Glenwood Springs aboard the California Zephyr, which sported no less than five domes. The dome was accessed via a small stairway and offered 24 seats under the glass, six rows of 2-2. The view was forward and above as well as to the sides, perfect for viewing the mountains above and around us as we climbed from Denver up into the Rockies. After crossing under the Continental Divide via the Moffat Tunnel, we then followed the Colorado River from close to its source at Grand Lake through Gore and Glenwood Canyons. It was an unforgettable ride and I’ve had a penchant for dome cars and the trains that offer them (Domeliners) ever since. Interestingly, the dome-lounge-observation-sleepers purchased by the Canadian Pacific were constructed on the plans of the 1949 California Zephyr tail cars, to which they are virtually identical.

      Two years ago, I rode ViaRail’s streamliner The Ocean between Truro, Nova Scotia and Montreal, Quebec. It also featured the dome observation lounge and after that trip, I knew I’d have to ride The Canadian sooner than later.

      Although the original route of The Canadian took it past beautiful Lake Louise and down through Banff, in 1990 the train was assigned a more northerly routing along the Canadian National Railway line through Jasper and Kamloops. Though not quite as spectacular as the Lake Louise routing, the current journey still offers plenty of world class scenery that few railroads can match. Add to this the beautifully restored stainless steel rolling stock from the original Canadian and you’ve got one of the finest railroad experiences in the world.

      It’s worth noting that although the cars will turn fifty years old next year, they’ve been upgraded to offer modern amenities. For example, steam heat has been replaced by electric heat, huge water tanks have replaced the cumbersome steam pipes allowing for showers in all the First Class cars, and the kitchen incorporates all the latest gadgetry to better produce some of the best meals on the rails.

      I’d originally purchased an Economy Class seat on this train. Based upon the funds I had available at the time, spending the extra $200.00 required to purchase a berth in the First Class section just didn’t seem fiscally prudent. Thanks to British Airways generous cash compensation of $1,400.00 as a result of my having accepted a bump off an oversold LA to London flight last month, I was now in possession of a First Class ticket entitling me to an upper berth. First Class also entitles me to complimentary meals in the dining car and access to the Park Car, the beautiful tapered end dome observation lounge at the rear of the train.

      My Economy Class ticket between Edmonton and Vancouver cost $187.00 CDN. By contrast, a roomette would have cost me $610.00 CDN. My upper berth cost $407.00 CDN. A lower berth is $70.00 more so I reckon I saved beer money just by climbing up a short ladder to crawl into bed later tonight.

      I’ve been looking forward to a ride aboard this magnificent old train since the day I first ever saw a dome car. Now that that day had arrived, let’s head on out to the platform!

      Pictures can be found HERE


      • #18
        Despite it being a bright sunny day, it was still early spring here in Canada’s most northerly major city and the morning temperature was only in the mid 40s. That would be about 7 or 8 degrees Celsius for many of you. I was the only non smoker standing outside but I like to be there when the train, headed up by two or three big diesel locomotives, powers into the station. Imagine my surprise then when suddenly, not the engines but rather the dome observation car that brings up the end of the train rolled past, followed by the rest of the train. Unbeknownst to me, because of the track alignment at the new Edmonton station, Westbound trains can only back into this station.

        Oh well – at least it’s here! And what a beautiful consist it is! Two big F40PH-2 locomotives provided 6000 horsepower worth of traction, followed by a baggage car, six coaches along with two Skyline dome lounges, five sleepers, a First Class dome lounge, a diner and finally, taking up the end of the train, the beautiful tapered end dome observation lounge. In all, seventeen cars of stainless steel majesty gleaming brightly in the mid-morning sun!

        Edmonton is a service stop for The Canadian. It took about fifteen minutes to clean and restock the train, during which time through passengers milled about on the platform chatting and taking pictures. Many of them also took the opportunity to have a cigarette since smoking is not allowed onboard unless you’re on fire. Meanwhile, those of us entraining at Edmonton were kept behind a steel gate. Finally, one of the ViaRail staff looked at his watch, got the nod from the Service Supervisor and spoke briefly into his radio. Boarding was announced.

        My berth was located in Car 121, just two cars from the dome observation lounge at the end of the train. All of the cars bear names and mine was named “Drummond Manor”. A small plaque inside the car indicated that it was named for William Henry Drummond, a Montreal Doctor renowned as an accomplished poet in the French Canadian dialect. I thought it might have been nice had they also put one of his poems on the plaque.

        Each “Manor” sleeping car offers three types of accommodation. There are four bedrooms, eight roomettes and eight berths – four upper and four lower. The bedrooms offer spacious ensuite parlor car seating by day and sleep two or three comfortably by night. The roomettes were designed for single travelers and are indeed a monument to organization and efficient use of space. Each single compartment is 3’ 7” wide and features a 6’ 5” bed that’s almost 3’ wide. They also include a sink, mirror, toilet, closet, fan and electrical outlet. ViaRail calls these accommodations “Single Bedrooms” but I think the term “Bedroom” is a bit generous considering the overall size of the accommodations. Berths are the most economical means of traveling First Class and offer comfortable couchette style seating by day that converts to upper and lower beds by night. The beds are curtained off at night for added privacy. Pillows, a duvet, towels and shampoo are all included. A shower and toilet facilities are located aboard each car.

        At the rear of the train is the tapered end dome observation lounge car. These beautiful cars used to grace the ends of many a zephyr throughout the Fifties and Sixties but now can be found only amongst private collectors and on the Canadian railways. ViaRail calls them “Park Cars” as they are named after various national and provincial parks. They are for the exclusive use of First Class passengers and feature two lounges, a bar and twenty four seats under the dome. The car on the end of today’s train is named “Glacier Park”.

        Following are links to some pictures I’ve found of this beautiful train:

        Rolling through Jasper Park

        Along the Route of The Canadian

        The Bullet Lounge

        Looking into the dome from the Bullet Lounge

        The dome interior

        The Mural Lounge

        Train time in Jasper


        • #19
          This being Easter Weekend, the train was almost completely sold out. Despite their high cost, bedrooms and roomettes are always the first to go. Surprisingly, there were plenty of unsold berths and so I had plenty of room to spread out. My neighbors across the aisle were an elderly Canadian couple who seemed friendly enough but weren’t overly talkative. That’s cool. We said hello and exchanged mild chit chat but they spent most of the trip reading and sleeping. I spent most of the trip in one of the two dome lounge cars or the diner.

          It’s worth noting that train travel is extremely popular amongst the elderly. This is especially true in First Class. For many people now in their sixties and seventies, train travel was the main means of affordable inter-city transport when they were younger. The world was in less of a hurry back then and train travel offers them an opportunity to relive one of the nicer aspects of that era. On ViaRail, First Class is actually called Silver and Blue Class – a term some say refers to the hair color of its most fervent clientele.

          A slight jolt indicated that departure was imminent and soon we were gliding smoothly out past Edmonton’s western suburbs and into the country. Departing Edmonton, a Continental Breakfast is served in the lounge car but when I was checking out the dining car, I overheard the staff discussing whether or not now would be a good time to make the last call for breakfast.

          “Can I eat now?”, I asked.

          “Mais oui!” replied my friendly French Canadian waitress. “Coffee and juice? How about a menu? The omelette of the day is a ham and cheese”.

          Ooo la la! So many choices! I settled on the Eggs Benedict and watched the farms and lakes of central Alberta roll by as I savored my coffee and juice. My Eggs Benedict was actually a quiche topped with slivered ham and topped with Hollandaise Sauce. It was served with hashed browns and was quite good.

          After breakfast, I headed up to the Skyline Dome Lounge located at the forward end of the First Class section. This is one of two dome lounges reserved for First Class passengers and offers a wider variety of activities than the Park Car. An Activities Coordinator was just starting a film about the wonders of Jasper National Park and I watched for few minutes before heading upstairs to check out the dome. What with all the real live scenery passing by just outside the windows, I’m not much for watching TV or movies on trains.

          Later, I headed back to the Park Car where the bar attendant, a real nice guy named Rob, was just getting set up for the afternoon. The bar is located under the dome in what is called “The Mural Lounge”, so named because it sported a large colorful mural painted by an Athabaskan artist from the Northwest Territories. The painting in this lounge was called “Arctic Spring” and added a good bit of color to an otherwise drab interior.

          My only complaint about The Canadian would be with the greenish-gray colors throughout. We’re talking industrial Government green here. Blah. I’d recommended some earth tones – sienna, ochre, beige, rust, offset perhaps by a dark forest green.

          Rob and I chatted about train travel, my trip, his past experiences on this train, the Canucks chances in the NHL Playoffs and much more. We were joined initially by Jeanine, the Onboard Service Supervisor, and then later by a couple of fellow passengers. They were all somewhat aghast at my travels of the past week, not to mention the next few days. Admittedly, I’m covering more of the planet in two weeks than some do in a decade. But hey – it’s what I do.

          When it comes to enjoyment of train travel, the lounge car is definitely where it’s at for me. Good conversation, easily accessible if somewhat pricey beer and beautiful scenery rolling past. It turns what some see as the boredom and drudgery of a day or two spent on a train into a most enjoyable and relaxed means of getting from one place to another. I love it!

          I took the last call for lunch and enjoyed a lentil burger and a salad. Soon afterwards, we were advised that we’d be arriving in the town of Jasper, situated at the northern end of Jasper National Park where the Athabaska and Miette rivers meet. The train is scheduled to insure daylight viewing of the Canadian Rockies and we’d been traveling through increasingly mountainous country for the past hour. It was only going to get better!

          In Jasper, the train stopped for an hour and a half to allow passengers to get off and wander about the town. The station, located right in the middle of town, is built from local stones and is a nice example of classic train station architecture from the turn of the century.

          Jasper is by all appearances a tourist town with plenty of quaint restaurants and a gaggle of gift shops to pry money from visitor’s wallets. It’s in a beautiful mountainous setting however, and I enjoyed walking from one end of town to the other whilst looking for a bank and some batteries for my camera. Departure out of Jasper was scheduled for 3:30pm and we were waving goodbye to a gaggle of local school kids by 3:31pm.

          Leaving Jasper, The Canadian follows the Miette River before climbing to the summit of Yellowhead Pass. The mountain beside us was quite steep and one of the ViaRail staff explained that the wire fences occasionally seen on the uphill side of the tracks were actually slide detectors which activate a warning signal for the engineers in the event of a rock slide or avalanche. The crest of Yellowhead Pass is also the border between Alberta and British Columbia. Time to set our watches back an hour.

          Mid spring meant there was still a lot of patchy snow down at track level and plenty more up in the mountains. Between conversation and sightseeing, I was doing a horrible job of having my camera ready whenever we’d pass a clearing offering an unobstructed vista of the surrounding mountains. It’s also hard to get good pictures when you get all set up and then, just as you push the button down, a tree or a telephone pole gets in the way. Still, I got a few decent photos and regardless, the memories will last forever.

          After a while, I retired to the Bullet Lounge for a couple of beers and some banter with the railroad buffs.

          Rob the bartender told me that there’s one old guy from Florida that rides this train four or five times a year. He apparently knows everything there is to know about the train including stuff like the condition and location of current and past cars. I get a kick out of the passion and knowledge some of these train fans add to the trip. Their excitement is no less than that of a five year old gazing at all the brightly wrapped presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

          Certainly, the scenery is a big attraction to riding this train, but you can find nice scenery on many trains throughout North America. We were all in agreement that perhaps the greatest allure of these Canadian streamliners is their vintage 1955 equipment. Nobody else operates these cars. It harkens back to a time when American and Canadian railroading was the very finest in the world. Thankfully for all of us fortunate to be sitting here in the Bullet Lounge sipping our drinks while watching the scenery pass by through the rounded windows , that time still lives on.


          • #20
            I’d made reservations for the second dinner seating and when the call came, I joined a couple of my fellow railroading devotees for a table in the diner. Here’s the dinner menu:


            Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup
            Fish Chowder

            Radiccio, Endive and Watercress Salad with a Sherry Vinaigrette


            Veal Chop
            Pan-seared to medium doneness and served with a roasted red pepper jus lié

            Blackened Pacific Halibut
            Dipped in our own special blend of spices, then pan seared, and served with a melon salsa

            Stuffed Turkey Breast
            Manitoba turkey breast stuffed with a fennel and pancetta ham stuffing

            Chickpea Curry
            A blend of carrots, peas, potatoes and chickpeas, seasoned with garlic, spices, lemon juice and fresh coriander

            To Accompany Your Meal
            Lemon and Parsley Baby Potatoes
            Canadian Seven Grain Pilaf
            Seasonal Vegetables

            ** ***** **


            Assorted Regional Cheeses and Fresh Fruit
            Chocolate Raspberry Torte
            Apple Latte Cake


            I started with a bowl of rich fish chowder, followed by a salad and the Blackened Pacific Halibut. The halibut was breaded and then dusted with some pretty spicy Cajun joo-joo powder that I thought was quite good but the English couple across the aisle felt was a little too hot. Garcon, a pitcher of ice water please!

            Dessert was a decadent chocolate torte/cake presented atop a zesty raspberry coulis. Accompanied by a cup of rich black coffee, it brought this repast to a delicious conclusion.

            Overall, I thought all the food served aboard The Canadian was quite good – certainly better than what I’d received last year while traveling aboard Amtrak’s premier train The Coast Starlight. Perhaps if Amtrak were to approach service aboard its best train as a “Land Cruise” more so than just simple transportation, trains like the Coast Starlight could rejoin their place amongst the world’s finest. With great trains as with great airlines, it’s not the scenery or the comfort so much as it is the service and amenities that define them as great.

            Later that evening, a three piece bluegrass band played a lively half hour set in the rear of the Bullet Lounge before joining us for beers in the Mural Lounge. It was a nice ending to a fine day of railroading and at 10:30pm or thereabouts, I called it a night and headed off to my berth two cars back.

            Surprise, surprise! James, the rarely seen but ever capable attendant in Car 121 had made up my berth on the lower level. Aside from the double bed in the special Honeymoon Suite, these lower berths are quite possibly the best beds on the train. Slightly wider than three feet and over six feet long, they include a comfortable dark green duvet and two large, fluffy pillows. What a treat! No ladder to climb up and a nicely made up bed to slip into, complete with a piece of chocolate on the pillow. Thank you, James, wherever you are. I buttoned the curtains shut and, after reading for a half hour or so, was lulled to sleep by the train’s gentle motion and the soft clickity clack of the rails speeding by beneath us.

            ** ***** **

            I awoke to sunrise along the Fraser River just outside Richmond, BC.

            After a hot shower, I headed up to the dining car for a glass of orange juice, hot coffee and a croissant. When I returned to my car, James had already returned the berths to their daytime seating configuration and had neatly placed my clothing and day pack on my original seat. What a guy! I watched as we passed over as well as under a couple of impressive bridges before finally pulling into Vancouver’s Pacific Central station at 8:15am.

            James was at the door as I alighted from the train. I thanked him for the great service, handed him a $10.00 bill and headed into the station to collect my luggage.

            In summary, The Canadian is everything it’s hyped up to be – great scenery, great service and a great time aboard. This is what train travel ought to be, and I will most certainly look forward to doing this again sometime!

            ** ***** **

            My flight to Hong Kong didn’t depart until 3:15pm and I wanted to launder my nice button down travel shirts for the long, thirty hour journey over to Johannesburg. As well, I’d forgotten to recharge my camera batteries while in Edmonton so hopefully I could find a laundromat nearby with a convenient electrical outlet.

            Fortunately for me, Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station is located very close to the city’s China Town district and if ancient stereotypes hold true, there ought to be plenty of laundries. I consulted the phone book where I found a map of downtown Vancouver along with the listings of numerous coin operated laundries in the Yellow Pages. Sure enough, there were a veritable cornucopia of laundries right on Main Street between the upper 2000 and 4000 blocks.

            Thankfully, the train station is located right on Main Street and I had little difficulty catching a #3 bus just a few blocks south until I spied the first laundromat. Just up the street were three more in the same block! This must be The Laundry District.

            By noon, I had clean shirts and recharged batteries. Two more busses got me over to the airport where I mailed off some postcards of the train before hitting the men’s room and changing into my flying duds. Now properly attired, I presented myself at the Cathay Pacific First Class counter and picked up my boarding passes and lounge invitation.

            Prior to passing through the security checkpoint, I had to stop and pay a $15.00 Vancouver Airport Improvement Fee. Frankly, I’m at a loss to see what needs to be improved! I think the Vancouver Airport is one of the nicer airports I’ve ever been in. Unless the monies collected are going to non-terminal related expenses, I’d call it an Airport Maintenance Fee.


            • #21
              April 9, 2004
              Vancouver to Hong Kong
              Cathay Pacific 889 First Class
              A340-300 B-HXI Seat 2A
              315p – 730p Flight time: 13:28

              Pictures can be found HERE

              Cathay Pacific operate their own lounge at Vancouver. It’s located up on the fourth floor mezzanine and outside the entrance is a life sized cardboard cutout of a Cathay Pacific Flight Attendant. Tacky. The lounge serves both First and Business Class passengers and I’m disappointed to report that it’s really fairly ordinary. So much so in fact that I’d say it’s in real need of improvement. Although its floor to ceiling windows offered a great view of the ramp (which today included our A340-300, a Lufthansa A340-600 and an Air Canada 767-300) the temperature inside was set too high, making the place seriously stuffy. The beer was cool, not cold, and the glasses were heavily water spotted. As for amenities, some dim sums and hot noodles were offered, along with plain blanched peanuts and Asian snack mix – the kind with those shiny colorful crackers. Later, just minutes before boarding was called, a tray of finger sandwiches was brought out.

              As I entered the aircraft, I was directed rather than led to the First Class cabin. No problem – I think I know the way by now, even though this was my first ever flight aboard an A340. The Business Class cabin looked okay, though the seats didn’t look nearly as nice as those of BA or even United.

              Cathay’s A340-300s offer eight First Class suites arranged 1-2-1 in two rows. Like the 747-400, the suites are quite spacious but window seats have the added attraction of a large seat side storage compartment. The PTV, sporting an approximately 12” screen, is mounted in the faux wooden divider facing your seat. Because of the large storage lockers along the walls, the actual window seat is a good two feet in from the windows. A single lavatory is located at the forward right hand side of the cabin, though access for those seated on the left side is only through the forward galley.

              As I was inspecting my new surroundings, I was greeted by Evelyn, she of the pretty smile and flowing purple gown. Soon I was sipping Krug and savoring sliced lobster tail over spicy slaw whilst perusing the entertainment options in CX Studio, which I’ll discuss later in this report.

              The load was light in First Class with only five of us set to enjoy Cathay’s award winning service on this sunny afternoon. Meanwhile, the amenities kept piling up with a nice new sleeper suit from highly regarded local clothier Shanghai Tang. The suits come in an attractive red cloth pouch and include slippers and an eye mask. Their color is beige with red trim, a color combination that while attractive in itself clashes horribly with the predominantly green cabin décor. Amenity kits and hot towels were next, followed by the menus.

              So – what’s for lunch?

              Vancouver to Hong Kong


              Caviar and Fine Fish Delight
              Oscietra Caviar and Fine Smoked Salmon
              Served with Warm New Potatoes and Crème Fraiche

              Asparagus Cream Soup with Coriander
              and served with Cheese Straws

              Seasonal Mixed Salad
              Served with Oriental Dressing or Thousand Island Dressing

              Bread Basket
              Assorted Bread and Rolls

              MAIN COURSES

              Fillet of Lamb with Grain Mustard Sauce
              Mashed Red Potatoes and Fresh Seasonal Vegetables

              Kung Po Pork
              Steamed Rice, Braised Black Mushroom in Oyster Sauce and Shanghai Pak Choy

              Lobster with Spinach in Scallop Sauce
              Vegetable Fried Rice

              Noodles in Soup
              With Wonton and Shui Gaw

              ** ***** **

              A Selection of Fine International Cheeses with Traditional Accompaniments

              Dessert Selection
              Pear Charlotte
              Chocolate Soufflé
              Double Milk Custard with Ginger
              Vanilla Ice Cream with Mango Coulis

              Tea and Coffee
              Pralines and Cookies

              Included in the menu was an insert detailing a program called “Simply The Best Chef” in which Cathay features prize winning dishes from its cabin crew cooking competition. According to the insert, renowned Hong Kong food critics were among the judging panel that selected twelve winning dishes. The Lobster and Spinach in Scallop Sauce was a silver award winning recipe in the Seafood category.

              Evelyn dropped by to offer more Krug which I declined in favor of sampling a Cathay Delight, one of Cathay Pacific’s so called Signature Drinks. Here is a description of them from the menu:


              Pacific Sunrise
              A refreshing combination of Champagne and Drambuie with the zest of orange and lemon

              Cathay Delight
              A Kiwifruit based non-alcoholic drink with coconut juice and a touch of fresh mint

              A Cathay Delight sounded just fine and, once served, was indeed delightful! The above description says it all and my only complaint was that it didn’t come in a 24 oz. Big Gulp cup!


              • #22
                Push back was right on time and as we taxied past the large number of Air Canada jetliners parked at terminal or in maintenance areas, I briefly considered the possibility that by next year at this time, there may be no more Air Canada. During my short stay in Canada, I read a number of articles and editorials written in the wake of a Hong Kong investor’s having pulled out of talks to inject 650 million dollars into the airline after negotiations with the unions regarding scaling down their apparently hefty pension plans were met with intransigence. One editorial observed that as things now stand, Air Canada may simply be too expensive to operate in today’s climate. Add to this the fact that Air Canada’s CEO along with his chief restructuring officer, while asking their employees to give back some of their pension benefits, were apparently set to receive bonuses totaling 21 million if the deal could be worked out. Then, after the investor backed out, the chief restructuring officer handed in his resignation. Air Canada’s bankruptcy extension hearing was due to come up the following week and so far at least, the whole business of saving Air Canada didn’t appear to be going any better than the past business of running Air Canada.

                Flight time to Hong Kong was projected at thirteen hours and thirty one minutes, cruising at a variety of altitudes too numerous to list here. In any event, it takes a lot of fuel to keep a big four engine jetliner like the Airbus A340 aloft for such a long period of time and so our take off roll extended to almost fifty seconds before we finally bid adieu to Terra Firma and headed into the clear afternoon sky beyond Vancouver.

                About ten minutes into the flight, Evelyn appeared with my second Cathay Delight and took my requests from the luncheon menu. Lets see… I’ll have the soup and the salad – Oriental dressing, please – and for the main course… let’s go with the lamb. Fillet of lamb sounded more substantial than lamb chops and I’m always a sucker for any mustard based sauce!

                Climbing northwest out of Vancouver, passengers on the left side of the aircraft were treated to spectacular views of the rugged core of Vancouver Island whilst the right hand side took in equally impressive views of British Columbia’s Coastal Range.

                Our route of flight would take us right up along Alaska’s southeastern coastline before taking a more westerly heading just south of Anchorage. I’ll have to remember to book seat 2K next time I’m on this flight!

                My table was soon set with crisp white linen, a bread plate, a butter plate, Cathay’s unique egg shaped salt and pepper shaker, two glasses for water and wine and finally, real silverware! The bread basket made an appearance and I selected a small loaf of Garlic Bread, nicely presented in an aluminum foil jacket to keep it warm. Again, another example of the little things Cathay does that make its flights so special.

                When the Salmon and Caviar Service commenced, I opted for a smaller portion of caviar but a larger serving of salmon. I’m hardly a caviar connoisseur but I do like my caviar a bit more flavorful. As for drinking vodka with caviar, well, I think that’s an acquired taste that I have yet to acquire. Instead, I tried out a glass of the Burgundy and savored the delicious salmon with ample additions of red onion and crème fraiche.

                The soup and salad were both quite nice, especially the salad which included a fair bit of head lettuce. So many airlines load up their salad bowls with mesclun leaves or “field greens” and while those nice dark green leaves are probably higher in mineral and vitamin content, I just refer the texture of a good head lettuce.

                Unfortunately, the lamb was pretty well overdone, forcing me to chew hard and snap my head back to get it down. Well, maybe not that bad but it certainly would not have won any awards for excellence in inflight catering. Perhaps I should stick with the Chinese dishes… We’ll see.

                Dessert was a magnificent Pear Charlotte that was as much a work of art as it was a culinary masterpiece! Simply delicious, especially with a cup of cappuccino followed by a small glass of port afterwards.

                ** ***** **

                By the time the last luncheon plate was cleared off, we were well on our way to Kodiak Island, just off central Alaska’s southern coast. Unfortunately, clouds had gathered and so I decided it was time to investigate the inflight entertainment options. On the flight between Vancouver and New York, I’d been too busy eating, writing and chatting with the FAs to watch any TV or movies. Now, with almost eleven hours yet to go before we’d land in Hong Kong, I had plenty of time.

                Cathay Pacific’s Studio CX is the greatest thing to happen to inflight entertainment that I have ever seen. The variety of movies, television programming, documentaries and music is simply outstanding! Add to this the video on demand feature whereby you may start and/or pause your selected program at any time and you’ve got without question the finest inflight entertainment system I have ever experienced!

                For some reason, despite all the great movies available, I desired an action flick and so went with that old tried and true classic Die Hard with Bruce Willis. Yippie Ki Ay and all that! I hadn’t seen that movie in years and it, along with a Coke and a plate of pistachios, made for a most enjoyable two hours. Later, I checked out the new album by 16 year old English school girl soul phenom Joss Stone, who some say will be the next Aretha Franklin. I don’t know about that just yet, but she’s got a voice and musical sensibilities that belie her young age.

                ** ***** **

                Three meals were offered on this long flight into Hong Kong – luncheon, a substantial refreshment, and a light dinner. Here are the menu transcripts for the refreshment and light dinner:


                French Baguette with Artichoke and Crabmeat Dippings
                Noodles in Soup with Wontons and Shui Gaw
                Plain or Prawn Congee accompanied by Oriental Pan-fried Cake
                Rice with Cured Meat in Hot Pot served with Daily Soup

                Haagen Dazs Ice Cream

                ** ***** **

                LIGHT DINNER

                Fresh Seasonal Fruits

                Bread Basket
                Assorted Bread and Rolls

                MAIN COURSES

                Braised Pork Spare Ribs Wuxi Style
                Steamed Rice and Stir-fried Choy Sum

                Superior Fried Noodles with Crab Meat
                Stir-fried Pak Choy

                Porcini Ravioli
                With Artichoke and Spinach Cream Sauce

                ** ***** **

                Tea and Coffee
                Pralines and Cookies

                By the time I’d finished with the movie, the music and a bit of work on this trip report, we were seven hours into the flight and I figured I’d better get a bit of sleep. It was broad daylight outside my window but past 10:00pm back in Vancouver. Considering that I’d started this day in the Fraser River Valley aboard The Canadian, done a load of laundry in Vancouver, drank warm beer in the CX lounge at YVR and was now flying just off Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, I figured I was due for a nap. With Cathay’s big well stuffed pillows, large comfy duvet and half tab of Melatonin, I was asleep within minutes and didn’t wake up until about an hour out of Hong Kong.

                Prior to my nap, I’d made arrangements with Evelyn for my dinner choices. Now that I was up and about, she proceeded to set my table and bring out the food. In lieu of bread, I started with a plate of the French Baguette with Crabmeat and Artichoke dip. Good stuff! This was followed by small bowl of the Soup with Wontons and Shui Gaw and a plate of the Braised Pork Spare Ribs Wuxi Style. What a feed! The crab and artichoke dip was just a bit too rich to finish off but the pork spareribs were excellent and every bit as tender as the lamb was tough.

                After a flight of thirteen hours and twenty eight minutes, we touched down lightly in Hong Kong, braked hard, and headed into Gate 25, conveniently located close in to the main terminal complex. Rarely has a thirteen hour flight passed by so quickly! Between the food, the entertainment and a comfortable bed, I can’t imagine any better way to fly. Well done, Cathay Pacific!


                • #23
                  HONG KONG AIRPORT

                  This was my first time in Hong Kong’s new airport at Chek Lap Kok. It’s bright and shiny but the overall appearance is somewhat utilitarian. Lots of gray colors lit up by bright lights. The concourses are wide with plenty of moving sidewalks and – good news for airport joggers - the walk from the main terminal out to the most distant gates may be the longest of any airport in the world! Gate 25 was only five gates down the concourse and it was still a fair distance from the main terminal! Overall, this looks to be a very nice airport but it lacks the warmth of Singapore’s Changi.

                  Alright now, where’s that there Wing Club I been hearin’ all the fuss about?! I had a three and a half hour layover in Hong Kong and was looking forward to visiting this most highly praised airline lounge. There is no shortage of CX personnel roaming this airport and I had little difficulty getting directions and making my way to The Wing. After checking in with the front desk staff, I headed up to the lounge via the elevator.

                  The Wing may just be the largest Airline Lounge I’ve ever been in! It is certainly the most comprehensive, offering everything from restaurants to bars to Internet Room/Business Center to Showers. It was once rated by SkyTrax as the finest First Class lounge anywhere. There were plenty of comfortable seating areas and between the Long Bar, Short Bar and The Haven Restaurant, who’d ever need to eat or drink anywhere else in the airport?

                  Initially however, my primary goal was a shower. Hong Kong’s weather this evening wasn’t hot, but it was humid and this was quite noticeable inside the airport as well. Thankfully, I’d thought to bring along an extra shirt! An attendant led me to a spacious shower room and I spent the next ten minutes enjoying a First Class deluge from the massive shower head suspended directly above the stall. It was a good eight or nine inches wide and once turned on was not unlike standing under a small water fall. Great shower!

                  Despite all the food options available in The Wing, I didn’t eat anything for the simple fact that I wasn’t hungry. Instead, I had a cup of coffee with a small pastry and retired to the Reading Room where about a dozen internet ready computers were available. After checking my email and trying unsuccessfully to book a cheap hotel room at JFK for the night of my return, I headed over to one of the many work stations available and fired off a couple of postcards.

                  I’ve been having a bit of fun sending postcards to a couple of friends in Alaska and Colorado, neither of whom know the full extent of my travels. They think I’m just going to Australia, so imagine their surprise when they receive dated postcards in the following sequence:

                  April 1: Australia
                  April 2: Singapore
                  April 3: London and Los Angeles
                  April 4: Seattle
                  April 5: Fairbanks
                  April 6: San Francisco and New York
                  April 7: Vancouver
                  April 8: Edmonton
                  April 9: Vancouver
                  April 10: Hong Kong
                  April 11: Johannesburg and Durban

                  Even I’m surprised, now that I look at it again. That’s a lot of area to cover in just eleven days. And, if nothing else, they’ll have the beginnings of a good international stamp collection because I always try to put as many stamps and stickers as possible on my postcards. Not only does this add a lot of color to the card but it also makes for less room to write! My writing is fairly small and over the course of a two month trip like this, I send off a fair number of cards to a lot of friends and acquaintances who don’t get to travel like I do. Plus, the end result is reasonably artistic and makes for a nice looking card. I’ve even had one of my cards published in full color in a travel magazine! A couple are hanging in bars, some are on walls and many more are on refrigerators.

                  Based only upon a single three hour visit, my impression of The Wing, while certainly positive insofar as the facilities go, is tempered by the sobering effect of all the slate gray stone. Like Hong Kong’s airport, this lounge is extremely functional though it could hardly be said to exude warmth.


                  • #24
                    April 10, 2004
                    Hong Kong to Johannesburg
                    Cathay Pacific 749 First Class
                    A340-300 B-HXI Seat 2A
                    1140p – 650a Flight time: 12:49

                    I’d noticed upon my arrival that my Johannesburg flight would also be departing from Gate 25. Surely Cathay wouldn’t be using the same aircraft again for this thirteen hour flight into Johannesburg, would they? Indeed they would! Of course, once this aircraft gets to Johannesburg, it’s got to turn around and fly right back to Hong Kong. That’s pretty good utilization even for an international aircraft. Just between Vancouver and Johannesburg, it’s in the air 26 ½ hours out of 31. As am I. It’s a lot of flying.

                    I never did get either of the Flight Attendant’s names on this flight, but like all of Cathay Pacific’s cabin staff, they offered a warm and attentive service. It began with a welcoming drink and an amuse bouche that consisted of a big seasoned mushroom cap served with a potato wafer.

                    Rather than champagne, I decided to go with another Cathay Delight. I'd been drinking various forms of alcohol off and on over the past fourteen hours. It was time for something a bit lighter.

                    Once again, the load was light in the First Class cabin – only three of us would be enjoying Cathay’s finest service for the next thirteen hours over to Africa this evening. I accepted yet another amenities kit and Shanghai Tang sleep suit, bringing my collection to three each of these items.

                    They’ll make wonderful Christmas presents. Honestly, I’m not that much of a cheapskate! I’ll dole them out to needy friends as well as keep one of the sleep suits for myself. I may even donate a sleep suit and amenities kit to the annual Denali Foundation auction. Last year I donated two Alaska MVP Gold Guest Upgrades and they fetched about $350.00!

                    So – is there any food on this thirteen hour flight? Menus were presented along with a refill on my drink. Here is the transcript from tonight’s supper service:

                    Hong Kong to Johannesburg


                    Caviar and Balik Salmon Delight

                    Oscietra Caviar and Balik Salmon “Tsar Nicolaj”
                    Served with Warm New Potatoes and Crème Fraiche

                    LIGHT CHOICE

                    Asparagus Cream Soup with Coriander

                    Served with Mini Garlic Baguette

                    Seasonal Green Salad
                    With Mushroom, Semi-Sundried Tomato and Parma Ham Crisp
                    Served with Honey Mustard Dressing

                    Bread Basket
                    Assorted Bread and Rolls

                    MAIN COURSES

                    Grilled Marinated Lamb Chops with Roasted Garlic and Thyme

                    Leek and Potato Boulangere and Vegetable Casserole

                    Mushroom Ravioli
                    With Tomato Basil Sauce

                    HONG KONG FAVORITES
                    Scallop and Shrimp Ball with Black Bean Sauce

                    Steamed Rice and Assorted Vegetables

                    Noodles in Soup
                    With Braised Beef Brisket

                    Dried Bonito and Peanut Congee
                    Accompanied by Spring Onion Pancake

                    Superior Vegetarian Combination
                    Served with Shanghai Noodles and Choy Sum


                    Roasted Vegetable with Feta Cheese in Puff Pastry

                    Salad with Balsamic Vinegar Dressing

                    ** ***** **

                    A Selection of Fine International Cheeses
                    Served with the Traditional Accompaniments

                    Sago with Taro Soup
                    Milk Pudding with Ginger Juice
                    Haagen Dazs Ice Cream

                    Tea and Coffee
                    Pralines and Cookies

                    WINE LIST


                    Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne

                    White Wines
                    Olivier Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 1998
                    Tignanello 2000

                    Red Wines
                    Chateau Lynch Bages 1995
                    Simonsig Cabernet Sauvignon 2000

                    Ramos Pinto Quinta de Ervamoira 10 Year Old Tawny Port


                    • #25
                      To be honest, I really wasn’t all that hungry and yet I wasn’t all that tired either. I debated putting in some work on this report, then eating and then sleeping – hopefully to awake in time for the breakfast service. Cathay Pacific, like all the world’s finest airlines, will happily serve you anything at anytime. You need only ask. In the end, I decided to eat first, then sleep, then work.

                      What to eat… Let’s see now… I’ll have the caviar and salmon, the salad and the Scallop and Shrimp Ball with Black Bean Sauce. This dish was listed as the Gold Medal winner in Cathay’s “Simply The Best Chef” cooking competition and congratulations go out to Sumiko Furukawa for her winning creation!

                      Once again, our fully fueled aircraft required a long take off roll before climbing out over Hong Kong’s harbor and heading toward an initial cruising altitude of 32,000 feet. Soon I was sipping from a glass of rather tasty Puligny Montrachet whilst awaiting the Caviar and Salmon service. This would be the first flight upon which we’d be served the much ballyhooed Balik brand “Tsar Nicolaj” salmon, so I was curious to see what all the excitement was about.

                      Although I’ve eaten a fair amount of salmon in my time, most of it has been freshly cooked or smoked. I’m no connoisseur of this lightly cooked, almost raw salmon that Cathay serves, but I do know that I like it. Honestly though, I could not discern any real difference in taste or texture between the Balik salmon versus the finely smoked salmon we’d been served out of New York and Vancouver. They were both excellent!

                      To date however, the best salmon I’ve ever eaten was caught out of the Chulitna River by a couple of fellow Denali drivers. Enlisting help from a couple of the hotel kitchen staff, these guys had that salmon smoked and cooked in an impromptu smoker created from a clean metal garbage can. I kid you not when I say that meat just fell off the bone and melted in your mouth! Still, I can’t imagine that style of preparation going over too well with the average First Class passenger. I can just see the menu now…

                      Smoked Salmon Delight
                      Freshly caught by our cabin staff, then smoked and prepared in an all metal garbage can
                      Served with a roll of paper towels

                      As for the rest of the meal, the Scallop and Shrimp Ball with Black Bean Sauce was pretty good but a bit mild for my tastes. The addition of chilli sauce helped significantly.

                      I passed on cheese or dessert because enough was enough. Too much food! Still, from a First Class perspective, better too much than not enough. While chatting with the FAs on the inbound flight to Hong Kong, I saw their list of main meals with how many of each type were on board. It was amazing! Out of four different main courses, there were either three or four of each loaded - definitely enough to feed each of us two entrees if we so desired!

                      After dinner, I had a small glass of port and watched an old episode of The Addams Family. They’re kooky and they’re spooky and I hadn’t seen them in years! It was fun to revisit with one of my favorites as a kid.

                      I called it a night right over the middle of Bangkok, Thailand. Talk about urban sprawl! Bangkok covers a huge area and to see it from thirty some odd thousand feet above on a clear night was most impressive.

                      Perhaps because I’d already gotten five hours of sleep on the flight between Vancouver and Hong Kong, my body told me it needed only a three hour nap and so I woke up just as we were passing over Colombo, Sri Lanka.

                      What an exotic routing! It would be so much nicer if this flight were to leave at 11:40am instead of 11:40pm. That way it would be an entirely daylight flight and arrive in Jo’Burg at 6:50pm. After flying over Thailand and Sri Lanka, with a routing that would continue over the Seychelles Islands followed by landfall at Mozambique, I feel like I missed out on a lot of potentially excellent viewing, even from 32,000 feet. As it was, all but the last two hours of this thirteen hour flight were flown in the dark.

                      Meanwhile, here I was awake while everyone else aboard was asleep. A true denizen of the night, like a vampire. So be it. I rang the call button and ordered a bowl of soup, then plugged in my trusty laptop and, with eight hours left in this flight, knocked off a substantial portion of this trip report. With such a great variety of travel over the past ten days, I’d been busy enjoying it more than writing about it, so I’d fallen quite a bit off the pace. Still, I took copious notes and now, only a few days after the fact, my memory – aided by a bowl of wonderfully spicy soup – served me well.

                      Some six hours later, after flying directly over Moroni in the Comoros Islands, we crossed the Mozambique Channel and gained landfall over Mozambique, just east of the southern edge of Lake Malawi. It was time for breakfast.


                      Juice Selection

                      Fresh Seasonal Fruits

                      Yogurt Selection
                      Natural, Fruit or Low Fat Fruit Flavored Yogurt

                      Muesli, Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies

                      Main Courses
                      Vegetable Rice Dumpling with Assorted Chinese Dim Sum
                      Omelette with Creamed Spinach
                      Scottish Kippers

                      Grilled Breakfast Steak and Pan-fried Rosti Potato
                      Grilled Bacon
                      Nurnberger Sausage
                      Tomato and Fresh Button Mushroom Skewer

                      Bread Basket
                      Assorted Bread, Rolls and Fresh Toast
                      Served with Preserves, Honey and Butter

                      Tea and Coffee

                      Interestingly, my Flight Attendant asked permission to set my table before each meal. Nice, I guess, but hardly necessary. I started breakfast with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice – at least it tasted like freshly squeezed. Do Cathay’s FA’s actually cut the oranges and squeeze them themselves? I wouldn’t put it past them! I followed this with an excellent fruit plate that included orange, grapefruit, strawberry, kiwifruit, papaya, cantaloupe and a red grape. Delicious!

                      Vegetable Rice Dumpling with Assorted Chinese Dim Sum sounded more like dinner to me, and I’m pretty sure Scottish Kippers is some kind of fish, so I went with the tried and true Spinach Omelette, accompanied by Nurnberger sausage and a skewer of tomato and mushrooms. Unfortunately, the toaster was on the fritz but the croissant I had in place of toast was excellent. It was actually flaky! Those rubbery things they call croissants on US airlines are anything but!

                      Finally, after eleven hours of flying through the night, the sun began to peek over the eastern horizon and shed some light upon the Dark Continent. I saw a massive river reflected nicely in the dawn’s early light as it flowed out to the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, patchy clouds and jungle mist obscured further viewing so I spent the remainder of the flight switching back and forth between the AirShow map and an episode of 60 minutes.

                      The captain informed us that conditions in Johannesburg were misty and about 10 degrees Celsius. I’ll pass on the mist but 10 degrees sounded just fine. As things turned out, the mist suddenly turned into an outright fog and the Captain later informed us that we’d landed just in the nick of time. I just remember looking out the window, anxious for my first close up view of Johannesburg, when suddenly WHAM! We’d landed! As we braked to a stop, it was all I could do to see fifty feet beyond the edge of the runway. Seriously, it was that foggy! Suddenly, the Captain really applied the brakes, enough so that I was concerned there might be something out on the runway that shouldn’t be there. Then we held on while making what must have been a screeching right hand turn onto a taxi way and proceeded apace into the terminal. Along the way, we were welcomed to Johannesburg and an apology was issued for the abrupt turn. The Captain explained that with all the fog, he’d almost missed it.

                      Thus ended my thirty one hour, 13,000 mile journey between Vancouver and Johannesburg. Really, it seemed much shorter what with all the food, Studio CX, a laptop connection, The Wing and a comfortable bed for those times I tired of it all.

                      Comparing these flights to flying British Airways on the 10,000 mile London to Melbourne route, certainly I’d have to give the nod to Cathay Pacific for all the little things they do that really put a shine on the overall service. Cathay also scores major points with its Studio CX! However, while BA may not wrap each package with a frilly bow, I really don’t think their overall product is that far behind Cathay’s. Both airlines are simply superb.

                      As for lounges, I’ll take the Concorde Room and the Molton Brown Spa over The Wing, thanks. Both lounges are excellent but the Concorde Room has a brighter and cheerier ambience and you can’t beat the Molton Brown Spa for all the services it offers beyond a mere shower.


                      • #26
                        JOHANNESBURG AIRPORT AREA

                        Once I’d cleared customs, I headed out into the main terminal area in search of the Information kiosk. Along the way, I was approached by three or four different taxi drivers who very politely asked if they might provide me with transportation anywhere. No thanks, I’ve got a ride!

                        I had reservations on the 7:15pm train to Durban but from everything I’d read, downtown Johannesburg is no place to hang out for a few hours, especially in the vicinity of the train station. Add to this the fact that I was actually pretty tired and it made good sense to get a bed at a hostel, catch a few hours of sleep, and then catch a ride into the city just prior to train time.

                        There are two or three hostels in the vicinity of the Johannesburg Airport, all of which are happy to come and pick up guests. After looking over two or three brochures, I settled on a place called The Africa Center. It had a swimming pool, a restaurant, internet connections and shuttles to various locations around Jo’Burg, including the train station. A dorm bed would cost me $60.00 Rand, or about $9.00 USD. Sold!

                        It turns out the Africa Center was half motel, half hostel. There was a group of Ethiopian bankers in town for a conference and they were all sat in a group out by the pool looking quite out of place in their predominantly black suits and ties. Also lounging at the pool were your average ragtag group of hostelers looking considerably more casual than the bankers.

                        While checking in, I overheard one of the front desk guys telling one of the hostelers about this great internet fare to Durban on, one of South Africa’s two domestic low fare carriers. The other is Nationwide. Apparently, the fare was $325.00 ZAR ($54.00 USD) on the internet, but internet bookings required a South African issued credit card. Can I call Kulula and pay for it over the phone? Yes, of course! Ten minutes later, I was booked on the 6:20pm departure for only about $7.50 more than the internet price. Such a deal! Unfortunately, when I next called to cancel my reservations with Shosholoza Meyl, the national railroad, I found they were closed after noon on Sundays. Alas.

                        After catching a few hours of sleep in the dorm, I ordered up a fairly decent Chicken Caesar Salad from the kitchen, put in an hour on the internet and caught the shuttle back to the airport. In all, a pleasant few hours at The Africa Center.

                        April 11, 2004
                        Johannesburg to Durban
                        Kulula 631 Economy Class
                        DC-9-80 ZS-OBF Seat 1A
                        620p – 730p Flight time: :47

                        Johannesburg’s Domestic Departures Terminal is in its own separate building and was well organized insofar as checking in went. A large board indicated which counters each airline’s specific flights would be checking in at and I had no problem finding my way around. Interestingly, Kulula’s check in was handled by BA’s Comair staff. Last time I checked, BA was a competitor on many of the routes Kulula serves. Nevertheless, check in was cordial and efficient. My pack was tagged with a BA tag and I was offered my choice of seats. 1A, please. Hopefully there would be some extra legroom in the first row.

                        With a little over an hour to go before departure, I took a wander around the terminal. One level down from ticketing and check in were all manner of shops and restaurants – everything from a decent book store to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I bought a bottled water and some funny postcards depicting a couple of baboons setting rollers in each other’s hair as opposed to their usual preening for parasites other tasty things.

                        A half hour before the flight, I headed down the long narrow concourse to my departure gate. Surprisingly, there was no gate lounge per se, just a numbered entrance to the jetway and a small podium. On either side of the entrance, out in the hallway, were four metal seats. Four more were located behind the podium. Twelve seats for potentially one hundred and forty passengers. I sure hope they don’t board anything larger than an MD-80 out of this gate!

                        After starting out with a mixed fleet of old 727s and 737s, Kulula appears to have finally standardized its fleet with MD-80s, an aircraft rarely seen in African skies. I can only imagine its smaller wing area relative to fuselage size may not have provided optimum lift in the hotter climates of central and northern Africa but here in the relatively cooler southern latitudes, it may be just the right aircraft for Kulula. This is especially true when you consider that over the past few years many US and European airlines have been replacing their aging MD-80s with new Airbuses and Boeings. As a result, I should think a young start-up like Kulula could probably get a very good price on these “old” MD-80s that should provide at least another ten years of reliable service. As well, the planes look good in Kulula’s flowing green, white and blue livery.

                        Kulula operate their MD-80s in an all economy class configuration. I was greeted at the door by the most casually dressed Flight Attendant I’ve ever seen! Blue jeans, sneakers and a green t-shirt. That’s it! No skirts, scarves or blazers, no big ID tags hanging around their necks. But hey, who cares? The price was right and since service is limited to a pass of the beverage cart, I can’t see where putting out a lot of money for fancy uniforms would make a whole lot of difference.

                        Departure time was 6:20pm but my body clock said it was 8:20am. Alas, jetlag got the better of me and as soon as I could recline my seat, I slept soundly until our final into Durban. We parked next to a pair of South African Airways 737s neatly lined up on the tarmac outside the main terminal building. As I descended the stairway from the aircraft, I was assaulted by the smell of burning meat and Jet A fuel. Either someone’s got the world’s biggest Braai going in their back lot or the caterers were still cooking the food as they loaded it on to SAA’s aircraft next door!

                        I’d planned a three day stay in Durban and had booked a room at Home Backpackers, a seriously laid back little operation located in a quiet neighborhood up on the ridge above Durban. I was met at baggage claim by Pierre, one of three employees at the hostel. After throwing my pack into the back of his brother’s hybrid 1968 Volkswagon beetle, we discovered that the vehicle wouldn’t start. No problem, said Pierre. This happens all the time. We’ll just have to push it out of the lot to where the road goes slightly downhill. Not exactly like getting picked up by the Sheraton or Inter-Continental, but fun nonetheless.

                        The bug died two more times on the way to the hostel but we did eventually get there and I checked into the only accommodations left, a single ensuite room with a queen sized bed and a big fan for only $170.00 ZAR or $26.00 USD per night. Pierre introduced me to the gang, some of whom were watching a TV movie in the living room while others were out under the thatched roof cabana/bar next to the pool. Santana’s Oye Como Va pulsed from a small portable CD player and plenty of beer was available in the fridge behind the bar. Everything’s on the honor system, Pierre explained. Just help yourself to whatever you’d like, then write your name down and what you took in this book here. Cool! Ice cold Amstel’s were going for only $0.90 cents US each so I had a couple with the gang before once again succumbing to jetlag and calling it a night at about 10:00pm.


                        • #27

                          Durban is eleven hours ahead of Alaska or two hours ahead of London. I spent most of my first day there in a daze and slept a lot. By day two, I was up and about just like I’d lived there all my life.

                          Durban is South Africa’s third largest city and the largest port in Africa. I found plenty to keep me occupied there, including visits to the beach, the Indian Market and a day trip to the Drakensberg Mountains to the north of the city.

                          Although my original intent was to include commentary about my adventures in and thoughts about Africa, right now it’s all I can do to bring the travel portion of this Trip Report up to date. My days are busy exploring this new land, and, because hostels are communal living, my nights are also busy. There’s always something going on, new people to meet, stories to hear, etc. as well as those .90 cent beers. I’ll be lucky to get this Trip Report online anytime soon, and that’s just sticking to the travel part of it.

                          For sure I am taking plenty of notes because I do intend to write this all out someday, but at present that’s just not working out in addition to getting this trip report done. Is that dedication to FlyerTalk or what? As it is, I won’t be able to get around to bringing all my pages of notes and observations into a coherent document anytime soon because as soon as I get back home, it’s straight back to work at Denali where I live in employee housing with an even bigger community of over 150 people, many of whom will have equally interesting tales of their off season adventures and/or misadventures, all of which demand to be told over copious amounts of ice cold beer. We’ll have to call it a winter project, I’m afraid.

                          The bottom line at this point in the report is that if you’re looking for a South African travelogue, alas, I’m sorry to say you’ll have to look elsewhere. At present, as I work from my Durban notes on this portion, I’m actually sitting in Swakopmund, Namibia some eleven days later. This morning we climbed to the top of some major sand dunes a few kilometers outside of Swakopmund. It’s a lot harder climbing sand dunes than it is mountains!

                          In any event, it’s rather windy and dusty out this afternoon, so I have a good excuse for sitting inside finishing up this particular Trip Report. I am so behind! But – I’ve been having a great time, too – seeing and doing a lot of new and different things – and that’s the primary goal of this trip more so than writing about it. As such, I sincerely hope you’ll all forgive me if I stick to planes, trains and Volkswagens for this report and leave the travelogues to the professionals.


                          • #28
                            April 14, 2004
                            Durban to Johannesburg
                            Shosholoza Meyl First Class
                            “The Trans Natal” Car 8 Coupe A

                            Pictures can be found HERE

                            Shosholoza Meyl is the new name of the old South African Railways. To make reservations for this train, I had to call long distance from Tasmania, something that required a good number of attempts before I finally got through and then only after calling the corporate number and being connected to reservations through their secretary.

                            In addition to basic Economy Class seating, Shosholoza Meyl offers three choices of sleeping accommodations for those more willing or able to pay the higher fare. The least expensive is the Second Class Sleeper. By day this compartment seats six on two padded couches – three on each side facing each other. By night it sleeps all of them in triple tiered bunks.

                            First Class Sleepers sleep four. The only difference between these and the Second Class Sleepers is two less bunks up top. Single people paying the First Class fare will be placed amongst four other passengers. However, if a couple is traveling together, there are a limited number of what are called “Coupes” that have only one couch by day and two beds at night, one of which folds down from the wall above the couch. There is no difference in price for couples to book a coupe, so it’s a good deal.

                            Finally, for single travelers who desire private accommodations, it is possible to book an entire coupe to yourself by paying twice the First Class fare or buying both beds, as it were. Given the current exchange rate of the U.S. Dollar versus the South African Rand, I found that buying an entire coupe for my journey was surprisingly affordable. I paid approximately $70.00 for the thirteen hour overnight run to Jo’Burg, then another $110.00 for the twenty one hour trip down to Port Elizabeth.

                            The Durban Railway Station is a large uninspired structure that also serves as the city’s main long distance bus terminal. Although I didn’t see the bus terminal, it had to have been brighter and more cheerful than the railway station. Concrete and shadows would accurately describe the gloomy ambience of this railway station though as I entered I immediately appreciated the cooler temperatures within its shadows.

                            My first stop was the ticket office. This nicely lit and air conditioned room was entered via sliding glass doors, guarded by the ever present security guard. I was directed to place my big backpack against the wall and take a seat in line. That’s right. Take a seat in line. There were three rows of chairs, perhaps six seats across. I took a seat at the end of the second row. There were ten or eleven people in front of me. As a ticket agent would finish with who ever was in front of him and the next person or persons would get up to approach the counter, their empty seats would be immediately filled by the people who were sat in line behind them. This went on throughout the line. In this way, I sat in most all of the seats in rows one and two before finally making my way up to the ticket window. As opposed to standing, this was the most comfortable line I have ever sat in.

                            Thankfully, there were no problems with my reservation and I had tickets in hand after only a couple of minutes. Afterwards, I ventured out into the dark corridors of the station to find a café in which to while away the next two hours until train time. A wooden sign emblazoned with the Coca Cola logo and an arrow indicated a Take Away place that at least sold soft drinks so I headed down that way until I noticed three things: One – I didn’t see any activity or lights down there, two – a sign indicated that the Metro trains departed from down that way, and three – the whole area was very poorly lit and I appeared to be the only one in the area.

                            If you’re looking for trouble, Durban’s Metro trains are a great place to find it. Muggings and armed robberies aboard the metro trains are not at all uncommon and visitors are uniformly warned to avoid these trains at all costs. Common sense suggested that wandering down dark, poorly lit and possibly deserted corridors that led in the general direction of the aforementioned Metro Trains probably wasn’t a very wise course of action either. I turned around and headed back toward the ticket office.

                            Just up from the ticket office was a small food store offering essentially drinks and snack items. I bought a big bottle of water, a bag of peanuts and the evening edition of the Durban Daily News. The National Elections were held today and there was some concern of violence in KZN province (KwaZulu Natal), a stronghold for the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party), the principal competitor to the ruling ANC (African National Congress) in this part of the country. In my wanderings about the city earlier today, I thought everything seemed pretty normal and based upon the news coverage, it was.

                            About all that can be said for the Durban Railway Station’s waiting room is that it is a room to wait in. Oh yes, it’s also air conditioned. Other than that, there are no chairs – just cement walls, a cement floor and doors. The doors leading in from the main station are watched by security guards (or at least there’s a security guard hanging around in the vicinity of the door) while the doors leading out to the trains are manned by railway employees. I took a seat on the floor and read my paper. Beside me, two African men, dressed in clothing that looked distinctly North African, sat amidst many bags and boxes. Across the way, an Indian family waited with only slightly less baggage. Where are these folks going to put all that luggage if they aren’t checking it? A few minutes later, the North African men laid out their prayer rugs and, presumably facing Mecca, engaged in a bit of prayer. I prayed that their prayers were not borne of past experience on this train.


                            • #29
                              Boarding commenced at about 6:45pm, a half hour before scheduled departure. I never heard any kind of an announcement. People simply started lining up at the door to the tracks and a couple of railway employees, after checking their tickets, started letting them through.

                              Once we’d located the correct platform, those of us with sleeper reservations had to first go to a large glassed in bulletin board and locate our name, beside which would be our car and room number. Ah… there I am! 8A. Car 8, Coupe A.

                              The doors and hallways aboard the train cars were quite narrow and while I was able to squeeze my backpack onboard the train and down the hall, I was unable to get into my room without first removing my pack – not as easy as it might sound in the narrow hallway. Once inside, I tossed my pack on the seat and took stock of my new surroundings. Since the hallways run along the side – not the middle – of each car, the compartments are almost as wide as the cars. My compartment was about 8 feet long by 5 feet wide. Along one side ran a large padded bench seat. The back of this seat is larger and at night becomes the main mattress once it’s placed atop the bottom cushion.

                              On the opposite wall was nothing except a small sink in the corner by the window. Although the handles indicated hot and cold water, I doubt there’d been anything flowing but room temperature water for many years. The window was about 2 ½ feet square and was divided into two halves. The top half slid down for fresh air. There was neither screen nor air conditioning.

                              The tracks were located under the station and it was hot and muggy down there. I fanned myself with my ticket jacket while awaiting departure. 7:15pm came and went. 7:30pm. 7:40pm. 7:45 - :46 - :47 Jeez! What’s going on?! Finally, there were two shrill tweets from a hand held whistle followed shortly thereafter by a noisy jolt as the engineers finally applied power to the big diesel electric engines. I had my window down and as we slowly started to glide out of the station, the wheels beneath me put out a terrible racket. There was this loud squeaking noise that went like this: Weka Weka Weka Weka Weka Weka Weka. Oh, man! I hope I’m not going to have to listen to that all night! As we increased speed, the cadence and pitch changed a bit: Weka Weka Wika Wika Wika Wika Wikka Wikka Wik Wik Wik Wik Wik Wi – into blessed nothing, or at least nothing I could discern. This was much better, especially once the breeze started to flow through my open window. This might not be such a bad trip after all.

                              About an hour into the trip, I decided to pay a visit to the diner. There are no lounge cars aboard these trains so if you want food, drink or camaraderie, you must go to the dining car. Shosholoza Meyl recently contracted out all of its onboard food services to a local fast food retailer called BJ’s. This would be like having Amtrak hand its food services over to Carl’s Junior or Waffle House. Not quite a Denny’s but more than a McDonalds.

                              And in fact, the menu wasn’t all that bad. Of course, there was the expected variety of hamburgers, fried fish and chicken entrees but there were also sandwiches, minute steaks and boerewor sausages along with some tribal foods that I can’t begin to describe. I settled on a curried beef plate and was not disappointed in either the taste of the price.

                              Although not too spicy, it was plenty flavorful and cost only $24.00 ZAR or about $3.50 US. Such a deal!

                              Thoroughly sated, I returned to my room and read until one of the crew came by offering bedding. For approximately $3.50 US I could have sheets, blankets and two pillows. Why this isn’t included in the train fare is beyond me but I paid the man and within three minutes he’d turned out quite a nice bed for me. Granted, there was no chocolate on the pillow like just a few days earlier aboard The Canadian but it was a well made bed and, best of all, the pillows were made from real down. Though small, they were thick and heavy and vastly superior to your average foam rubber or cotton fill pillow.

                              The route between Durban and Johannesburg takes this train through some pretty scenic countryside, most notably the Drakensburg Mountains. Unfortunately, it’s traveled under cover of darkness. I fell asleep around 11:00pm, only to be awakened a couple of hours later by a horrific jolt as we pulled out of some poor backwater town unfortunate enough to have its only railroad service arrive and depart in the middle of the night.

                              I slept through the rest of the night without incident and awoke to sunshine and distant mountains rolling past my window. We were due in Johannesburg in about an hour, so I hastily organized my gear, stowed it, and headed up to the diner for coffee and breakfast.

                              Either there weren’t many early risers on this train or breakfast at BJ’s wasn’t very popular amongst the riders. With the exception of the staff, I was the only patron in the entire car! The breakfast menu offered four choices, none of which were worthy of endorsement by any cardiologist worth his salt. There was an egg and cheese sandwich, an egg and bacon platter, an egg, bacon, sausage and tomato platter and finally an egg, bacon, tomato and french fries platter. All of these came with a slice of toast. I ordered the one with fries along with an immediate cup of coffee.

                              With so few people in the diner, I was better able to have a good look at its layout. Seating was buffet style, the tables accommodating four on one side and smaller tables seating one or two across the aisle. Local music blared from speakers located at each end of the car. At the far end, down by the kitchen, a small gathering of staff and friends of the staff looked to be having a party. Nonetheless, service was attentive and my coffee was presented in an attractive cup and saucer adorned with colorful Ndebele style art. The seats were upholstered in a collage of African art styles, much like a patchwork quilt. They were then sealed in plastic. In all, a colorful dining experience that included some very good coffee.

                              Before long, we were rolling through the suburbs of Johannesburg. Aside from industrial areas and junkyards, the “neighborhood” alongside the tracks included some very large shantytowns where people lived in patchwork structures created mainly from pieces of corrugated steel and scrap wood. There were also lots of single story government built houses that looked more like large children’s playhouses, and finally, as we approached the inner city, we passed a collection of apartment buildings and tenements. Some of these looked acceptable, some did not. A couple of the worst examples had broken windows and crumbling facades yet I could see people standing inside behind the windows. I was reminded vividly of similar scenes in the buildings surrounding the 125th Street station on the Harlem Line heading north out of New York’s Grand Central Station. It was abject poverty at its worst.

                              Disembarking in the Johannesburg Station, I had to present my ticket to one of the railroad staff before being allowed to proceed through the turnstiles and head upstairs into the main terminal. Definitely save your ticket receipts! The escalator was not working so I trudged up the long concrete stairway and into the heart of Johannesburg’s Park Station. The cavernous central hall was flooded with natural and artificial light and looked far more pleasant than that mausoleum masquerading as a station down in Durban! There were a good variety of restaurants, most of them fast food operations specializing in chicken and burgers but there were also a couple of nicer table service places upstairs that served things like steak, fish and curries. There were also a number of small stores selling everything from fresh meat to office products to luggage. Also on the upper level was a bank and a place that offered internet use for about $6.00 US per hour.

                              I had five hours before my train was scheduled to depart for Port Elizabeth and wanted to be rid of my forty eight pound pack for awhile. It’s really not that heavy but since it’s designed with over 7000 cc of space, it is bulky, like carrying a medium sized child around on your back all day. Thankfully, there was a baggage storage place at one end of the station that charged the equivalent of about $1.00 US for a day’s storage.

                              Interestingly, the proprietor took great pains to warn me not to venture outside the station. The Park Station is located in a part of downtown Jo’Burg that, according to most guidebooks, is not at all safe. Even the most recent Lonely Planet guidebook, which is designed for backpackers as opposed to your average leisure suit clad Fodor’s tourist on a package holiday, warns against spending any time outside the station, especially if you’re carrying any kind of baggage.

                              No problem! I spent an hour and a half on a computer with an extremely slow internet connection and a defective keyboard, then headed downstairs to make a couple of bus reservations. Later, I languished over a couple of coffees and a raisin bun at the Leopard Spot restaurant whilst coloring up a few postcards for later mailing.


                              • #30
                                April 15, 2004
                                Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth
                                Shosholoza Meyl First Class
                                “The Alcoa” Car 9 Coupe D

                                With the name change from South African Railways to Shosholoza Meyl also came a change in corporate colors. The South African Railways livery reflected the colors of the old RSA flag – white, with blue and orange. The new colors represent at least in spirit Nelson Mandela’s vision of a Rainbow Society. The cars are predominantly purple with yellow and blue. My sleeper bore these new colors on the outside though I didn’t notice a lot of difference on the inside. With the addition of two colorful BJ’s diners in the middle of the fifteen car consist, you might have thought we were riding the train to a Grateful Dead concert. Time to hang your freak flags! I’ve actually ridden on a few trains to Dead concerts and they were way fun! But that’s another story…

                                We pulled out of Jo’Burg right on time and I immediately headed up to BJ’s for a bite to eat. I could have eaten back in the station but I’ve always enjoyed sitting in the dining car while rolling through the mountains, plains and valleys of this fine planet we inhabit. In today’s case, once we’d cleared the Johannesburg suburbs and headed out into the country, the mostly flat, dry land reminded me of Kansas in the summer, but with a few more trees.

                                Over the course of the afternoon, we stopped at or passed through a number of small farming towns, some of which looked very nice. At one point we stopped on a siding for about forty minutes, but no trains passed us in either direction. I did hear occasional bangs and clangs outside the train however, so I suspect something was being repaired.

                                Between meals and with the lack of a lounge, I spent much of this trip stretched out on my couch reading. I polished off one newspaper, an entire Time magazine, finished one book and started another. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, one of the crew would travel from car to car with a cart of snacks and beverages. I bought a pack of peanuts and a can of tepid Coke. By the way, whenever I asked for a coke down here, the response has been “What kind of a coke?” There’s orange coke, cherry coke, grape coke, Coca Cola... I think they do this in Texas, too.

                                Despite sleeping upon a pad rather than an actual mattress, I slept fairly comfortably while onboard these trains. My only complaint was with the ventilation. On my second night, there was this smell of burning brakes mixed with diesel exhaust that lasted for over an hour. It got so bad that I actually developed a headache from it. I tried closing my window, going out into the hall way and closing the door between cars… nothing worked. A couple of aspirin and Melatonin finally allowed me to get back to sleep again.

                                The next morning we pulled into Port Elizabeth about forty minutes late. Despite being South Africa’s fourth largest city, the PE railroad station is little more than a big train shed, although to its credit it did have two pay phones available for the convenience of all arriving passengers. Thanks to my bump on BA last month, I’d made reservations to stay at a nice bed and breakfast called The Calabash Lodge and within minutes I was on my way into Port Elizabeth. From PE I’d begin my journey down South Africa’s beautiful Garden Route along the Indian Ocean.

                                And so, after fifteen days and 42,000 miles of travel, I have completely circumnavigated the planet and then some aboard a mix of planes, trains and one sputtering Volkswagon Beetle. From here on out, I’ll be ridin’ the bus for awhile! Can’t you just hear Dickie Betts singin’ Ramblin’ Man out there on that distant highway?

                                As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed tagging along with this Trip Report.

                                Til next time…