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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Hong Kong

A couple of weeks ago I got to go to Hong Kong for work for my first time ever. Ridiculous trip schedule (taking a red-eye right after a school midterm, landing and going straight into three days of meetings, turning around and coming home less than 72 hours later), but a very good trip nonetheless.

Since this was a work kick-off event, we had half a day of team fun to get out and explore the city. I posted some of the interesting scenery photos to my gallery:

Particularly fun was an adventure to the “Ladies Market” with my co-workers Mike and Sonny. They were under orders from their wives to find some knock-off handbags, and had even been trained in what to look for as a “good quality fake”. We had little luck finding the right items in the usual street-level bazar, but we soon found a stall that consisted of nothing more than a folding table and a bunch of catalogs. Not catalogs of the original products mind you, but full catalogs of knock-off items.

It seems like there’s been some cracking down on displaying certain manufacturer’s wares out in the open, but there’s apparently no problem with taking people up to sketchy “showrooms” housed in converted apartments. We started in one place that was a 3-room apartment where the sales guy lived with his family, and used one of the rooms to store piles and piles of different fake bags; unfortunately none of what we wanted though.

The second venue was much larger (they dedicated an entire 4 room flat) and organized by different categories (handbags, purses, briefcases, and a huge table of watches). This place turned out to have just what everyone was looking for, and we ended up bargaining for a couple hundred dollars worth of knock-off goods. Actually, I use the term “we” lightly, as it was Sonny who drove the really hard bargain and essentially got my little gift for the wife almost for free.

Final note, don’t bother buying button-down shirts from a street vendor in Hong Kong. They might look like a good cut and color, but they are usually made out of polyester and of completely crappy quality. Oh well, it was a $6 experiment.

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Mirage in the Desert

Heading back from a long weekend in Las Vegas with Indiana Jane. Had a great time of course, but our Vegas vacations are always a little different from most people’s idea of a debaucherous weekend in Sin City. Mainly, neither of us really gamble all that much these days; just doesn’t interest us that much. I don’t mind finding a low-limit table in the old downtown and shoot some dice around, but I’ve given up on pretending that I can win enough at any game to make it worthwhile. As Penn Jillette said at his show, “this is Vegas, which means that no one here is really good at math.”

Well, this weekend we decided to explore a new end of The Strip and try a new hotel, The Mirage. Our main priorities for Vegas hotels are primarily:

  1. The pool – we spend a lot of time hanging out in the sun during the day, a spacious and nice pool is must-have. So far my favorite is at the MGM Grand, huge complex, a lazy river, several waterfalls, and even a lap pool for morning constitutionals. The Mirage’s was pretty good, but felt a little crowded. Last time we were in town (for work) and stayed at the Hard Rock and Lex said that pool was nice, but pretty much a ridiculous scene.
  2. The food – plenty of good grub destinations all over the city, but invariably you’re going to eat at least a couple of meal at your hotel. This is where The Mirage really fell down. Their in-house cafe were not very tasty and way overpriced. The MGM again does very well here, a solid selection of cafes on the main floor as well as numerous fast food dives in the basement walkway for a quick fix in the mornings.
  3. Location – there’s a lot to do in every part of Vegas. Its worth trying one end of the strip and then the other and even off-strip for something completely different (Palms, Rio, Green Valley Ranch)
  4. Privacy – hotel rooms can vary widely in design. Another complaint I had with the Mirage was the noise you can hear from the hall in your room; slamming doors, singing neighbors, housekeeping, etc. Oh well, you can’t have peace and quiet everywhere, even in the middle of the desert!

Other hotels we’ve tried and our thoughts:

  • Monte Carlo – central location, nice rooms, poor pool and little food.
  • Bally’s – even more central location, nicely updated rooms, quite good food, and right on the monorail. Main drawback is the small square pool.
  • Luxor – rooms usually have no view, poor food and poor pool. I won’t even mention the Excalibur.
  • New York – solid on all counts, if not a smallish pool. I also love the roller-coaster.
  • Sahara – Getting a major update with the Monorail coming to the neighborhood. Crummy food and pool, but you can get suites with an attached room for real cheap. Works well for wedding parties.
  • Hard Rock – surprisingly nice rooms, far from the strip, merely OK food, and too small of a casino to house the “scene”.

Every time we go back I look for deals at the high-end places we want to stay: Mandalay (great pool), Bellagio (beautiful), Venetian (hearing a lot of good things), and of course the new Wynn. We checked out the Wynn this weekend and were very impressed with the architecture and the food.

Other fun things we did this weekend included seeing Penn & Teller at the Rio (great show), driving out to Green Valley Ranch for some excellent ribs at a local joint called Lucile’s and staying for a weekly club party out by their pool, and doing a bit of much-needed clothes shopping at the nearby Fashion Show Mall (having a car changes your horizons during the day quite a bit).

Hah, and as luck would have it a friend just sent me this link that agrees with a lot of the above:

http://www.reviewjournal.com/bestoflv/

Damn, now I really want to go back! Whoops, flight time…

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Props to Southwest

With Alexis returning to the desert for a new five-month archaeology project next week, we’ve started booking a huge number of flights back and forth between the Bay Area and LA on Southwest. I fly a fair amount, and I really have to say that Southwest is one of my favorite airlines to deal with. In particular, the fact that they make changing your reservations so easy and NON-PENALIZED eases our worry about shifting plans.

The most annoying aspect of most airline reservation systems is that if you want to change a flight its going to cost you at least $50, most likely $100 or more just for the “privilege” of shifting your schedule. And forget about canceling a flight, on United it will usually cost you more to cancel a reservation and get a refund on the balance than the flight was actually worth (if you could actually get a refund).

With Southwest, you can change or cancel a reservation at any time, even if your in the middle of your itinerary (haven’t used the return ticket yet). You’ll always get the full value of your cancelled flight back as at least a credit you can use towards future fares, and the worst they’ll do is charge you for the difference between what your old ticket was worth and the fair market value of whatever flight your switching too.

But now it looks like its time to land though, so I guess thats all for now!

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Old Passport

2005, time for a new passport. I did a pretty good job of filling up my old book with some extended travels in 2001, multiple work trips, and of course around six or seven trips to New Zealand. I forgot to scan the old book before I sent it off for a renewal, but luckily they returned the whole thing with a giant “CANCELLED” stamp in the front. I wanted to save pictures of it for posterity, and there are some cool stamps in there.

Now I have to fill up the new double-sized book (48 pages!) I got within the next ten years.

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Stockholm Photos

On this trip for work I got a chance to visit Sweden for the first time. I flew in early Sunday morning and had an opportunity to wander around the capital city, Stockholm. Beautiful place, very relaxed. I haven’t taken a tremendous number of photos because I didn’t want to duplicate the standard postcard shots that you can find in any travel book, but a few things caught my eye which I thought were interesting enough to share.


(Please excuse the glaring new blue background for my re-instated Gallery site, I need to work on making it look a little more like my blog at some point here)

Tonight I’m flying back to London to give a presentation at the InfoSecurity conference tomorrow morning and then working there the rest of the week. With a number of friends and acquaintances in the city I hope to have at least a couple of good adventures.

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Northern Lights

On a plane flying to London right now. It was a hectic week trying to get everything ready before I took off, so I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night. My plan was to force myself to stay awake through the remainder of the day, set my watch to GMT when we flew out, and then try to catch the early sunset to start getting my body on a somewhat local rhythm.

Unfortunately my plan didn’t account for our flight plan taking us over the northern tip of Greenland and fairly near the arctic circle. Here it is 3am adjusted local time and the sun is finally going down, and of course I’m just not that tired. We’re arriving about 6:30am on Saturday morning and I’m tubing over to one of my best friends’ flats for the weekend. Should be interesting to see how human I am. Oh well, he’s taken care of me when I’ve gotten deathly ill when visiting him in random countries before, so this should be a breeze.

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(Delayed) Praise for JetBlue

At the end of my last day in New York I was coming out of a meeting and I got to see something I have wanted to see in Manhattan for a long time; it had just started to snow. I thought would enjoy this new event (for me) by walking a few blocks to visit an old friend of mine for a drink before I headed to the airport.

Let me just say right now, snow in New York sucks. Walking through snow in New York sucks more. Walking through snow in New York, in a suit, dragging a roller bag behind you sucks even more! It didn’t take long to realize that the building-channeled winds did everything in their power to drive snow flakes right in to your eyes, and that the sidewalks and metal grates in the city very quickly become wet/icy/slick death traps for anyone not wearing full-on hiking boots. After meeting my friend I tried to catch a cab out to the airport, but all the drivers were of course occupied or being complete assholes about taking someone all the way out to JFK in the snow (I know, I know, I should have gotten their number). I ended up walking another number of blocks to Grand Central to hop the airport bus out. By the time we got to JFK there was a pretty blanket of white on the ground, although I didn’t realize how much pain that was going to cause us trying to get in to the air.

Long story short, we were delayed about half an hour waiting for a connecting flight to come in, then queued up for de-icing. After being blasted by the little guys in their hilarious high-pressure cherry pickers we got in the queue for the runway. Just before we got clearance our pilot came out to examine the wings and decided we’d been on line for too long and we needed to get de-iced again…which meant we also needed to get more fuel. So we ended up heading all the way back to the gate we had left more than an hour ago! Total delay getting out of JFK was something like five hours…followed by a five hour flight home.

But, if I had to get stuck on the tarmac for so long, I’m glad it was on JetBlue. Their in-seat TV service was a pretty good distraction and the flight crew was nothing but nice the whole time. By the time we got in the air they announced we would all be getting a small travel voucher as appreciation for our patience. And, overall, I’m happy they chose to be safe rather than eager. I’m very happy with JetBlue for cross-country flights, and they will probably be seeing a lot more of my business considering that United has added a $200 premium on top of what should be a $300 fare, just because they put power outlets at each seat and now call the SFO-JFK flight “Premium Class”.

One thing I find interesting about JetBlue though is that they don’t offer any kind of alcohol on their flights. Is this because of accounting issues, cost cutting, or is it perhaps their CEO is Mormon? Hmmmm…..

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