Category: Travel

Chicago O’Hare and Jet Lag


I flew from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Singapore via Taipei last weekend. My Eva Air flight was at 00:30 hours, past Friday midnight and I cleared all formalities by 10:15 PM Friday evening.

I was totally surprised at the level of airport activity – there were passengers, of course, and airport personnel, but O’Hare did not look like a major international airport at all. Almost all the restaurants were closed, except for a lousy coffee shop and a bar with no food. This was Terminal 5, and I am sure there might have been more activity in the other terminals, but we could not leave this terminal and go to the others to check out. My family was hungry and so was I, but the maximum we could get was a brownie and coffee. This was simply unacceptable, and I could not resist comparisons with major Asian flight hubs such as Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok or Hong Kong, which are alive with activities 24×7. You can almost get anything you want in the Singapore Changi International Airport even at midnight.

American airports need to be upgraded with more passenger services and better quality infrastructure. These airports are decades old and appear to have hardly seen a major facelift over the years. I saw one DFS shop open with exorbitant prices for almost everything. But as time went on, the activity levels dropped except around the departure gates. I wouldn’t be surprised if the situation was similar in other major international airports in the U.S.

Well, at least the gate handling was uneventful, and Eva Air departure personnel handled the crowd efficiently, and the flight left on time (except for the short taxiing delay of 10 to 15 minutes). I decided to align my body with the time at Chicago and went to sleep after some food. Many folks were seeing movies. I slept for some 6 to 7 hours and when I got up we were some 70% through with our journey time. It was morning time in Chicago and I again aligned my body with some activities like walking around the cabin, stretching the legs, seeing some movies, etc., keeping awake till the plane landed at Taipei. It was going to be 4 AM in Taipei the next day. And, I felt fresh. It worked for me and I had no jet lag at all even after we landed in Singapore around noon time Sunday.

Of course, I went to sleep pretty early Sunday night and had a good 8 hour sleep, and that brought my body in alignment with the local timing in Singapore. However, my family members were having difficulties with jet lag affecting them for couple of days before they felt all right.

So, the key learning was to ensure sync with the origin location of the flight, rather than the destination. This worked for me. I never felt sleepy during late afternoons upon arrival, and this was different from my previous experiences.

Well, Singapore always looks welcoming when we arrive its beautiful airport, so here we are! It was a wonderful vacation in the U.S. and when I walked around New York and Washington, I felt that I should have worked in these places at least once in my lifetime!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

8th July 2017

 

Catoctin Mountain Park Maryland


While visiting Washington DC earlier this week, we decided to go hiking at one of the nearby national parks. A uniquely American experience, I would strongly recommend taking a hike in any of the national parks. Americans make it a great marketing experience with big support to any visitors – they have a nice visitor centre with all amenities and officers on hand to explain everything about the park.

We chose to visit the Catoctin Mountain Park some 50 miles outside of Washington DC, in Thurmont Maryland, because it was a bit closer than the original selection of the Blue Ridge mountain, and had easier treks for the first time visitors. The drive itself was smooth with much less traffic than we had anticipated, and we reached the Catoctin Mountain Park in about an hour and fifteen minutes. My daughter mentioned that this was a smaller park in terms of area allocated due to its vicinity to Camp David with its high security. You can take a look at the following websites Catoctin Mountain Park and National Park Foundation – Catoctin Mountain Park

The officer at the visitor centre of the park took time to explain the various possibilities for trekking at the park, he also suggested we do the Cunningham Falls trail loop which will be a 2.8 mile round trip, followed by a visit to the Blue Ridge Summit via the Hog Rock. The map provided by him was helpful in understanding the route. We got ready for the trek and went into the dense park of tall trees with cool weather despite the blazing sun outside. It took all of around 2 hours for visiting Cunningham Falls at the end of this trail and return to the visitor centre.

On a scale of 1 to 5, probably this trek would rate at a less than moderate 2 in terms of difficulty. Mostly flat, with some climbing and ground undulations, combined with crossing some fallen trees, made it an interesting though not tough trek. I was wondering if I should have brought my Merrell shoes from Singapore – on this trip I was just wearing the usual walking/running shoes which do not provide good grip while walking on gravel. I have always had problems while coming down from an elevation, as I tend to slip on the gravel; further, going down causes strain on the knees.

The visitor centre brochures covered one dreadful aspect of the trek into this park which is the potential for catching Lyme disease which is an infectious disease caused by ticks. We were a bit scared after reading the printed material, but then chose to proceed anyway. You can read about this disease at Lyme disease .

It was good fun and is a nice bonding time with the family. When I was unstable at some point, my son would stand ready at my back to steady me and make me all right. There were many photo opportunities on the way and at Cunningham Falls. It was a good experience and we all liked the park and its trail that we undertook.

I kept talking to my family about how well the U.S. is organized in terms of infrastructure, provision of assistance (like the visitor centre), the helpful indicators provided while navigating the park, the interest that they create in children and also adults about the importance of such recreational activities (the visitor centre was full of young children when we visited), and the whole approach towards dealing with citizens/visitors which is imbued with a marketing flavour.

I believe that this is what we lack in many other parts of the world, and especially in India. There is rarely such guidance, infrastructure or marketing provided by the governments in many countries which probably have equally beautiful national parks or forests.

In any case, we decided to have such a national park hiking expedition during every visit to the U.S. or Canada in future.

Hopefully, you folks who are reading this post, will also love trekking and take a hike soon!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

30th June 2017

Coda Di Volpe Review


We celebrated my wife’s birthday at Coda Di Volpe Southern Italian Restaurant located in the Lakeview area on Southport Avenue of Chicago last evening.

It was a fabulous choice with a very attentive service staff and fantastic food. Our family always loved Italian food, but we have not experimented that much with Southern Italian food with its distinctive flavours and superb taste. This was probably the first time that we delved deep into that cuisine, I would say.

I did not drink wine during the dinner (is that not very surprising), but my wife and daughter tried a Pinot Noir, the Terre Nere Nerello Mascalese 2015, which they said was excellent.

Our selection of dishes was amazing – for appetizers we selected the Bruschetta di Burrata (the puglian Burrata cheese is rather enticing) and Vegetable Antipasti. The Antipasti comprised of marinated black and green olives, pickled veggies, eggplant and grilled summer squash – a great choice for wine drinkers, I would say.

For the main course, we ordered two pizzas and two kinds of pastas. The pizzas were Quattro Formaggi and Funghi – both vegetarian, and the pastas were Bucatini Pomodoro and Ricotta Gnocchetti, again both vegetarian. All were outstanding – flavourful, tasty, and healthy. I loved the Funghi Pizza which had roasted mushrooms (I have always love mushrooms), cherry tomatoes, mustard greens, garlic, oregano, fior di latte cheese, and pecorino blue cheese. My son went for Chicken Diavola which he said was very good as well.

Since this was a surprise dinner ahead of the actual birthday, my family arranged with the chef for bringing out a nice cake at the end of the dinner with a candle on it, and my wife was very close to guessing it. However, before any further deliberations, the cake arrived, with again a detailed explanation of the constituents of the cake by the senior service staff member who attended to us throughout the dinner. This is a big difference from anywhere else – knowing that most of the clientele are not well versed with the unique characteristics of the exotic food from Southern Italy, the service staff are trained to explain every nuance of all the dishes in great detail. I believe that such explanations go to serve a greater understanding of what we were having for dinner, and develop a keen sense of appreciation for specific food choices. The knowledge of food makes us wiser when suggesting restaurants or food types to our guests – be it in corporate or private setting.

Overall, Coda Di Volpe was an excellent restaurant with great service. If I have to call out one deficiency, it was the portion size for Pastas – too small for one person I should say. This forces people to order the bigger portion, which is probably the right size for one person!

I would strongly recommend this restaurant to all Italian food lovers.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

30th June 2017

Impressions from Washington DC visit


I visited New York and Washington DC (four days each) recently.

I am yet to meet a person who does not like New York, and I am no exception. I loved the buzz of the city, its vigour and life. Life in New York moves on its subway and on Time Square, it appeared to me. I saw several places in New York and will write about it sometime soon.

Washington DC appeared to me as a more relaxed place – may be that was because I was seeing mostly tourists everywhere. The metro subway network had newer trains and was not crowded even at the busiest stations. Traffic was there but not as heavy as it was in New York. I saw a lot more casual bistros in Washington, and the speed of life seemed to be at a slower pace.

However, the places of tourist attractions were overcrowded. For instance, I was at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument yesterday, and there were probably a thousand people crowding around these historic places. It was sometimes difficult to get a photo shoot. One thing for sure, Washington DC has some of the best buildings with architecture that could compete with any old European city, with a modern orientation that blends beautifully with old world charm. The huge buildings and the vast spaces between them characterize a global capital city, and its centre of power. The U.S. is indeed the world’s undisputed super power, and Washington is its capital city. It was easy to be over-awed by its enormity.

The other aspect which impressed me thoroughly was the free access to some of the best museums in the world. I had time only for two of them – the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum. Both offer fantastic experiences, and I relished every moment of my visit to these world-class museums. There are plenty of other museums to visit, may be for another time!

The White House view did not impress me that much but the U.S. Capitol was fabulous. I took a free tour of the same, and also attended live sessions of the House and the Senate. It was democracy in action at the heart of the U.S. politics and government. This is the place where U.S. laws are enacted and the country makes decisions which could impact the entire world such as going to war.

Though I did not have time, I took a ride to see George Town, and it was fascinating to see the beautiful townhouses and the riverfront. In my opinion, the whole city appeared to be beautifully designed and constructed with utmost care and attention to detail. Architecture has played a big role in determining the beauty of Washington DC and I would surely rate it as one of the best cities in the world, notwithstanding some unseemly comments that one could chance upon on things like crime rates, etc., It is indeed an impressive city with some of the best architecture one can see around in the world. Apart from the same, the enormity of the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House descends on you like it would never happen anywhere else in the world – these are the places in which decisions with global import are made regularly.

While there were lots of foreigner tourists visiting these attractions, I estimated that 6 out of 10 folks in any queue are Americans who are exploring their own capital city and the unique things it has to offer. Not surprising given the fact that the U.S. is a huge country and many people normally would not leave their city or state and even travel to the neighbouring state. But then Washington DC has a special attraction for even those kind of folks. Everyone wants to see Washington DC and New York at least once if not more.

Overall, an excellent visit, and I would love to visit again!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th June 2017

 

Eva Air – a game changer


I flew Eva Air from Singapore to Chicago via Taipei earlier this week.

Last month, I flew Emirates via Dubai to the U.S. and have written about my experience on Emirates. See The Emirates Experience

This time around, I wanted to fly through one of the Asian hubs to the U.S. There were only a few options available – Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, ANA via Tokyo Narita, JAL via Tokyo Narita, Korea Air via Seoul or Eva Air via Taipei. You may wonder why I did not consider Singapore Airlines. The answer is simple – I cannot afford it, whether for a business trip or a personal vacation. SIA is overpriced in all sectors going to Europe or the U.S., for almost similar quality of experience with other airlines listed above.

After some serious evaluation which included the dates on which I have to fly, I settled on Eva Air, and this was the very first time I was going to fly with Eva Air. I purchased the Premium Economy ticket, considering the long journey and the need to arrive fresh for some urgent personal work that I had in Chicago. It was around 35% more expensive than the normal Economy Class ticket. Before I decided on Eva Air, I studied the Premium Economy Class comparison of the airlines I had shortlisted, and Eva Air scored at the top of the table due to the comfort offered on this class.

I was not disappointed. Premium Economy seats offered on Eva Air were comfortable with wider seats and much longer leg space. It was almost 75% of the usual business class seat in terms of width of the seat, and the leg space was not cramped – there was good space, and if one is on the first row of this class, it was great – I managed to get one such seat in the long haul from Taipei to Chicago. But even on other rows, the space was very good – I was on one such seat from Singapore to Taipei. Further the Boeing 777 planes were very new, and the flights were smooth sailing for the most part.

However, there were some issues which need to be fixed for the overall flight experience on Eva Air. One was the quality of food, especially for vegetarian selections. Since the point of origin for this flight was Singapore, Eva Air could easily source great vegetarian food, but they did not. It was of average quality (as per my family member). My special meal was better, though it was not as good as that offered on Emirates flights. The other problem was the choice of wines – being in Premium Economy, they should at least offer two white wines and two red wines, but they were offering just one of each type. Not adequate for the ticket price that passengers were paying. The third issue was the quality of service – most of the flight attendants struggled to understand English requests, since they were largely unable to get out of their mother tongue influence. Every one of the flight attendants was a Taiwanese lady, and non-Chinese passengers had to repeat their requests carefully and slowly before they could be understood. The good thing was that the attendants also repeated the passenger’s request so that they could unambiguously understand the same for fulfillment.

Considering the price and quality of Premium Economy offering from Eva Air, I am inclined to state and conclude that it is one of the best around. I was also happy that the 14 hours 20 minutes flight from Taipei to Chicago actually made it to Chicago in 12 hours 40 minutes, though the flight from Singapore to Taipei was delayed by 40 minutes due to rains.

If Eva Air could fix some of the issues, I am sure that it will give a run for the money to the other global Asian airlines on long haul routes. I have to say that I have not experienced the Economy Class on Eva Air, which remains as the Achilles’ heel for most reputed airlines. With its good reputation and mostly on-time performance, and latest range of aircraft, Eva Air has an excellent chance to become one of the top airlines from Asia for long-haul routes. However, the airline needs to look at feedback from global travelers, adopt some of the best practices from other successful airlines such as the Emirates and SQ, and induct a more globalized air crew.

Well, all the best to Eva Air. Keep it up folks!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

18th June 2017

 

 

My favourite Wine Duo


Recently I was wandering around the Dubai Airport Duty Free Shops, which remain as one of the more exclusive types of airport shopping around the world. Premium shopping, I should say, with an ambience which is yet to be beaten by other global airports. And, the number of people milling around these shops – well that is simply amazing. I cannot resist the comparison in my mind with Singapore Changi Airport, which has similar DFS shops, but more widespread around the airport terminals. I have seen a lot of people at the Changi Airport shopping areas, but have seen few people actually buying anything, except in Chocolates and Liquor sections. Most of the branded shops in Changi are at the very high end, with hardly any shoppers inside.

At Dubai DFS Shopping, almost everyone who walked in bought something, at least during the time I watched. Of course, prices do matter and Dubai is strictly tax free and it helps. Changi Airport DFS prices are not much different from what one would get in the city shops, especially for liquor; chocolate prices, are in fact, higher than what one could get at the Mustafas. Further, there were no overbearing sales people unleashed on shoppers at Dubai – they were around but kept a discrete distance unless there was a request. Even the chocolate varieties were better and different from Changi, so obviously I bought some chocolates.

Now, let me come to the Liquor section. Dubai DFS has an excellent collection of wines (though not large), and has a great selection of whiskies (reflecting the tastes of passengers passing through!). I saw some very good wines on offer at prices which you can never get in Singapore – whether at DFS or not. After some browsing around, I chanced upon one of my favourite wines of all time – the Montes Alpha from Chile. I had written about this winery in the past, and would recognize it instantaneously anywhere!

Well, let us look at what I bought: the Montes Alpha Chardonnay 2014 D.O. Aconcagua Coast, which is a great white with golden colour in an inviting bottle for USD 18.89 (SGD 26.06 at current exchange rate) which costs between SGD 44 and SGD 58 in Singapore via online ordering! At the high end of these prices, it is expensive by more than 100% compared to Dubai.

I also bought a red wine from Montes Alpha: the Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 D.O. Colchagua Valley, which is one of the best cabernets that I have ever tried, with deep red ruby colour and a fruity nose. Again, the pricing was exactly the same as above!

I love both these wines, they are creamy with a smooth finish and linger for quite some time. The effect is pleasing and wonderful. The Chardonnay is crisp and fruity, and the Cabernet is aromatic and complex. Amazing wines indeed.

Well, I can only envy the folks in Dubai. I will never get these kind of prices in Singapore. I will be very happy to get these wines at SGD 35, but I know it would not happen. So, let me grab such wines whenever I travel to airports like Dubai. That is the least I can do!

Enjoy your wines or drinks responsibly. Do not drink and drive. Do not drink beyond two glasses of wine or two small pegs of whiskey or any other hard liquor.

Cheers, and Have a wonderful weekend,

Vijay Srinivasan

03 June 2017

The Emirates Experience


Recently I flew to Dallas on Emirates Airlines (SIN – DUBAI – DALLAS).

The Singapore – Dubai flight was on Airbus 380, which provided a comfortable inflight experience. Emirates generally provides ontime performance, and it was no different this time – landed on time in Dubai and the transit wait was just 2 hours for the next flight. The only disconnect was the non-availability of Indian Vegetarian food for my colleague who is strictly vegetarian and prefers Indian food.

However, the flight to Dallas took longer than the planned time of 14 hours and 45 minutes. It took nearly 16 hours, making it one of the longest flights that I have flown. There could be any number of reasons, one being a 30 minutes delay while taking off from the busy and congested Dubai Airport. It was tiring, though onboard service was good (unlike the U.S. carriers who generally provide shoddy service).

Apart from this long overall duration of over 25 hours from Singapore to Dallas (which could have been around 22 hours had I taken the Singapore – Tokyo – Dallas route including the transit wait), the surprising issue was the experience in Dubai Airport itself while transiting. It was well past midnight when we landed, and the next flight was just 2 hours away taking off from another terminal. Unlike Singapore Changi Airport which has clear guidance to transit passengers, Dubai Airport does not provide guidance and leaves the transit passengers in the lurch. We had to figure out by ourselves how to get to the other distant terminal, and discovered that there is a crowded bus service which brought arriving passengers with no segregation from departing passengers. We had to wait some 20 minutes or so before a bus to pick up departing passengers arrived, which was a large van with a cart to load baggages trucking behind it! This was a curious experience, but we finally made it to the other terminal. I seriously think that Dubai Airport should give this aspect of its experience a rigorous examination.

Well, I have not mentioned the laptop ban issue till now. Emirates Singapore Office gave contradictory information over two phone calls regarding the laptop ban. In the first call, they said that I could carry the laptop as usual till Dubai Airport gate, and then they would take it over till Dallas, and eventually hand it to me upon arrival. During the second call, the lady who handled my call was very confused, and after checking with her supervisor couple of times, asked me to check in my laptop at Singapore itself. After few deliberations, that is what I did, but then found out at the gate in Dubai Airport that Emirates had a neat arrangement for collecting the laptops, packing the same securely, and take them into the cargo hold. And upon arrival at Dallas, Emirates made several announcements at the baggage belt area reminding passengers to collect their respective laptops.

On the way back from Dallas to Singapore, there was no laptop issue (it is a problem only when you arrive in any U.S. airport from any one of the Middle Eastern airports). However, there was a 9-hour transit wait for the flight to Singapore from Dubai, and so I decided to go into town for some shopping with my colleague and a relative of mine who was kind enough to shepherd us. We enjoyed the amazing experience of visiting the Ibn Battuta Mall (see IBN BATTUTA MALL).

Dubai Airport immigration service is fast and efficient. The security check was thorough. One had to walk a long distance of almost 800 metres from the car drop-off point at the airport terminal all the way to security check (it is a very large terminal), and then to the immigration counters.

Well, next time I am flying to the U.S., it is going to be back to the old routine of travelling via Tokyo Narita or Hong Kong. The challenge is that the code share flights are usually operated by American Airlines or United Airlines.

Just got over the jet lag, and now ready for my usual week beginning tomorrow.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th May 2017