Monday, November 21, 2011

Flying First Class

This was not the first time I’d flown first class.  In my earlier years when I was an interior designer, five other Los Angeles designers and I had been invited to tour Karastan’s rug factories in North Carolina.  It’s almost hard to imagine in today's economic climate, but they flew us there first class.

And then there was the time I was racing home to Tennessee – hoping to make it soon enough to see my father one last time – and the first flight was too late to make the connection.  The airline got me on the next one, but the only available seat was in first class.  How lucky was that?  (The other good news was that it didn’t end up being the last time I saw him.)

It was that second time flying first class that impressed me more.  Maybe it’s because on the earlier occasions, we weren’t accustomed to the sardine section’s being quite so jam-packed as it came to be in later years.  Maybe it’s because, traveling alone the second time – and with a certain amount of emotional duress – I was more aware of the niceties: a glass of champagne as I was seated, a rose in the first-class restroom.

Fast forward to November 2011.

It’s not that I was late-late in reserving frequent-flyer award travel for my business trip/family visit.  It’s just that it was late enough that there were no more 12,500-mile-per-leg economy-class seats available for free.  And free is good.  I really like free.  So my choices were to trade in 25,000 miles per leg for “anytime” economy-class travel, or choose from a more limited selection of times, but fly first class.  Who among us would say, "Give me coach!  I prefer the cozy closeness of it all.  Really love the way my knees feel when they're embedded into the seat back in front of me"?  No surprise here, but I went with first class.

We got to Los Angeles International Airport only to see a huge long line snaking its way up to check-in.  But that wasn’t for us.  We got to walk past them all to Premium/First Class check-in, where we actually had a choice of agents we could have walked up to, all with no customers.  “Couldn’t they have spread out some of these agents?” I asked my husband.  That part was quick, quick, quick.

I still had to wait in line for TSA screening (though a much shorter one than the pleb line was).  So there I stood, feeling like an imposter.  Surrounding me were the women with perfect hair colors – you know, the kind of blonde that you know had to cost a fortune.  And then there was the man whose hair was also notable, mostly due to its length.  It’s not that he was mean-looking – just a little scruffy, sort of like the type you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley.  Except that he was flying first class and carrying a guitar case.  (Maybe I should have asked for his autograph, just in case he’s famous?)

I acquiesced to the TSA screening, only to have to be patted down anyway because there were rhinestones on my top.  Oh, well.  I’m telling myself the pat-down would have been more intrusive had I not offered my body for the viewing pleasure of someone in a “remote location.”

Turns out the flight times with first class offerings had been great, so I paid little attention to the equipment.  Flying Los Angeles to Houston, Texas, what else would we have but BIG?

“What do you mean, American Eagle?”

Followed by, “Why can’t I see a sign for Gate 44J?”  Ah, there it is.  Take the escalator down.  “Why did I just buy this venti cappuccino?  Please don’t have an earthquake while I’m trying to manage a carry-on, my camera bag, and a hot drink on an escalator, all without falling on the lady I just let go ahead of me.”  A bus took us to a remote waiting room.  Not feeling very first class in all of this.

On boarding the plane my carry-on was tagged and I was informed that I could pick it up right after the flight.  I was happy I'd thrown in the heavy-duty bag from our Oceania cruise, and I transferred my laptop and a few essentials into that to carry onto the plane.

First-class on a puddle-jumper jet.  You know those big cushy seats you pass through all those times when you aren’t flying first-class – those soft Italian leather ones with New Zealand sheepskin?  (Okay, maybe they aren’t Italian or New Zealand products, but they could fool me.)  We’ve all seen them as we’ve headed back to our seats in the cattle-car section, and we’ve all wished we could be some of the lucky few.  “How rested I would be if my seat reclined and had those footrests.” Forget it, they aren’t on a puddle-jumper!

Still, first class does come with its creature comforts.  You barely take your seat before a fight attendant asks if you’d like something to drink.  “A glass of champagne, please.”  I have to say, I was disappointed that it was a plastic glass, but still…  Before take-off, however, she returned to retrieve it (barely touched).

After take-off she returned for beverage selection.  “I’m not counting that first one,” I said.  This time it came in a real champagne glass and accompanied by mixed nuts (with nary a peanut in the piled-high dish).  “Will a meal be served on this flight?”  Yes, there was a choice of attractive options, each served on a tablecloth- (cloth napkin-) covered tray.  For the poor souls back in steerage, it was BYOF (Bring/Buy Your Own Food) – and no cloth napkin.  All in all, I did feel fairly well spoiled.  I could get used to this.

“Another glass of champagne, please.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

DAY 11 - Athens, Greece (Oceania Cruise)

The cruise had come to its end, and we needed to vacate our cabin by 8:30 a.m. Oceania invited us to continue to make use of the ship’s lounges, if we wished; but as we had only one day to see Athens, we needed to move along. For the sake of time, we had room service bring us a Continental breakfast.

Disembarkation was quick. We picked up our luggage in the terminal (see Disembarking Info below), got a taxi from the waiting line
of taxis outside, and were whisked away to our Athens hotel.

While cruising (as an old TV cruise commercial used to say) “we came to believe we were descended from royalty.” So how appropriate that we moved from the ship to the 5-star Royal Olympic Hotel in Athens, where we’d booked an Athenian Panorama room.

The Royal Olympic Hotel, in Athens, is a member
of the Great Hotels of the World Luxury Collection.

The Royal Olympic Hotel, in Athens

Of course, this was early morning, so we couldn’t see the actual room until later (more on that below), but the hotel stored our luggage and we went out to see Athens instead!

The things you see, just walking along the streets of Athens!
This is an archeological site of Roman baths.

Timing was good for us to catch the changing of the guard at the Parliament Building. There, the tall Evzones (Presidential Guards) watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The ceremony is done on the hour.

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens

Evzones at the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Athens

Evzones’ shoes and legwear in Athens

It’s more of a “production” on Sundays, with the accompaniment of a military band at 11:00. But the advantage of a week day is that there isn’t a huge crowd (at least, when we were there), and it’s easy to get your photo taken with the guard. Had this been on a Sunday, he would have been in a white skirt (like the Scottish, they call them kilts) and we would have matched. :)

Standing next to an on-guard Evzone in Athens

We had a lot of ground to cover, so we decided to take one of the hop-on-hop-off busses in Athens. (The hotel recommended “the red ones” – City Sightseeing.) The busses run every 30 minutes. If you stay on, the total tour takes 90 minutes; and there’s pre-recorded commentary, via headset, in nine different languages. The original quote was €18 apiece (it covers two days), but the lady on the street, who was trying to sell us the tickets, offered them for €16 each. (Even though she was wearing a branded scarf, we didn’t give her the money until she came on the bus with us. It was all legit, but you can’t be too careful!) For our purposes I wouldn’t say it was the bargain of the year, but it was nice to get the overview of the city that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I welcomed the opportunity to sit. The day would have plenty of walking!

Here are a few shots taken from the bus:

We thought Athens needed just a few more cars!...

…And Athens is a little short on motorcycles, too!

…But apparently this photographer didn’t think Athens traffic was so bad that he couldn’t stand in the middle of street to get his shot. (What you can’t hear are all the horns honking at him!)

Another shot from the bus in Athens. I can’t help wondering what the look is about.

We only saw this open-air Athens market from the double-decker bus.
With more time, I would have liked going back there to explore more in detail.

We got off the bus for some lunch before going to the Acropolis.

An Athens café

Café in Athens

Greek salad and drinks in Athens 

The food was delicious, but we did feel double-crossed when the bill came and we had to fight it. (See tip at the bottom.)

Next, on to the Acropolis. The Acropolis is currently undergoing restoration, and likely will be for some time to come. Even though it resembles a construction site to some extent, because of what it is, it’s worth it to pay your €12 and see it if you haven’t been there before.

Many of the antiquities are now in the Acropolis Museum nearby. Unfortunately, the museum was closed on Monday, the only day we were in town. (Click here for hours and info on the museum, which looks magnificent!)

The Acropolis in Athens

The Erechtheion, c. 421-406 BC, part of the Acropolis in Athens

The Porch of the Korai, part of the Erechtheion, at the Acropolis in Athens

What a “junk yard” looks like at the Acropolis

“Love in the ruins,” the Acropolis, Athens

In front of the Parthenon in Athens

The Acropolis, seen from the Areopagus (Mars Hill), Athens

According to the information plaque on the site, “A judicial body, the Areopagus Council, met on this hill to preside over cases of murder, sacrilege, and arson. The Areopagus was also a place of religious worship.” It was here that the Apostle Paul told the Athenians that he had seen their statue to the “Unknown God,” and that’s the one he wanted to talk to them about.

Athens has some beautiful architecture (this one in Plaka)…

…and also some once-beautiful architecture.

Plaka, on the northeast slope of the Acropolis, is a fun place to stroll. One of the oldest residential areas of Athens, it’s full of cafés and shops, but is a place where people still live (and in some beautiful neo-classical buildings). Here are a few photos taken there.

Dog surveys the happenings below from a 2nd story window in Plaka, Athens

A true “sidewalk café” in Plaka, Athens

This is less “sidewalk café” and more “stair-step café” in Plaka, Athens.

Beautiful sidewalk café near the Agora in Athens

I have three favorite hotels in Athens: the Royal Olympic, where we were staying; the Hotel Grand Bretagne; and the King George Palace. More photos of the Royal Olympic will follow (it was wonderful!), but we also stopped by to see the other two.

First time I ever took a picture while walking through a revolving door!
(Hotel Grand Bretagne, Athens)

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens

Hotel Grand Bretagne, Athens

King George Palace Hotel, Athens

The beautiful Tudor Hall, inside King George Palace Hotel, in Athens

Dinner at Tudor Hall can set you back some serious chump change, but they offer a prix fixe luncheon menu for €29, not including drinks.

Elegant little nook at Tudor Hall, King George Palace

Back home at the Royal Olympic Hotel…

Staircase at the Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens

We booked one of the hotel’s Athenian Panorama rooms (#505), looking out over the Temple of Zeus. Wow! It was very spacious, and I would describe it as being a formal version of Greek-style décor.

Photo courtesy of Royal Olympic Hotel’s website  (I’m using the hotel website photo,
as it has both the inside and outside exposures right, and my photos don’t!)

A welcomed welcome of wine and fruit waiting in our room! (Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens)

Athenian Panorama room #505 in the Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens

I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a more elegant bathroom!  The tub was huge.

Bathroom in an Athenian Panorama room of the Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens

I so loved that balcony! (Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens.)

We couldn’t quite tear ourselves away from our view, so we ordered room service and ate on the balcony, watching the changing colors of the sky.

Al relaxes and takes in the view of the Temple of Zeus from our balcony
at the Royal Olympic Hotel.

Reflections from an Athenian Panaroma room at the Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens

For the photo above, I stood on the balcony and shot into the room.  It shows multi-layered reflections from the window and the mirror over the arched headboard.

And speaking of reflections, here’s a view of the Acropolis (top right) and sunset,
from the Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens

A person could easily have an acceptable room in Athens for considerably less than an Athenian Panorama room at the Royal Olympic. (There are even less costly rooms at the same hotel.) But if you’re only staying for a night or two and can swing the difference, this is one of those experiences you won’t forget.

View of the Acropolis at dusk, from our balcony at the Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens

The Parthenon at dusk, seen from the Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens

Temple of Zeus at dark, as seen from our balcony at the Royal Olympic Hotel, Athens

The lobby of the Royal Olympic Hotel in the wee hours of the morning

Good-bye to Athens. Our taxi to the airport awaited.

CRUISE DISEMBARKING INFO: Our empty suitcases had been delivered to us the afternoon before. We had several hours to pack them and put them in the hall by 10:30 that night. We wouldn’t see them again until we were in the terminal, after leaving the ship. It was nice to have all that taken care of for us, though obvious thought had to be given to the task so that anything we would need overnight or the next morning, was saved out to put in our carry-on luggage. (With suites that have butler service, you can actually have the butler pack and unpack for you.)

ATHENS TIP: We were told inside the Athens terminal that a taxi to our hotel shouldn’t cost more than €15. The first driver quoted €25; the second one, €20; and we couldn’t find anyone who’d go lower than that. So whether we overpaid €5 or whether the first person was misinformed, we would have done worse if we hadn’t asked at all. And it was quite a distance, so perhaps €20 was right. Either way, it was a reminder to us that we should always ask someone local before negotiating with the seller of the service.

DON’T GET CHEATED: We had a delicious lunch in Athens. While we were considering where to eat, the owner of a café stopped us on the sidewalk and offered to give us an €8 gyro meal for €3. That was quite a deal, so we accepted. Before ordering, we notified the waiter of the offer the owner had made. When the bill came, it was for the full €8 each, plus €2 for the bread that was brought to our table before the meal. The waiter said that the €3 gyros were “a different meal,” and we hadn’t ordered bread. The owner refused to come over to the table, however, the waiter did finally reduce the meal price to €3 each. Al agreed to pay the €2 for the bread we hadn’t ordered, but it came out of what would have been the waiter’s tip.

It’s unfortunate that these things have to happen. It leaves such a bad taste in a tourist’s mouth (no pun intended).

But this is small compared to a friend of a friend, who purchased what she thought was gold and diamond jewelry in Athens, only to find out once back home, that the “diamonds” were cubic zirconia. Unless you have fully vetted a respectable dealer, do you really want to buy expensive jewelry overseas?

A third thing I’ll cover is about paying taxi drivers. One day on the cruise, before a shore excursion, the cruise director warned passengers about a practice that he’d had happen to him – and which Al and I had also had happen to us in Rome. You hand the driver the amount you owe for the taxi ride. He does a quick change (maybe while you’re putting your wallet away), and he says, “You only gave me X amount,” while he shows in his open hand the lesser amount than what you handed him. Our taxi driver actually followed us into our hotel in Rome and threatened to call the police. I said, “That’s a good idea!” and asked the hotel concierge to do just that. With that the taxi driver left. Now we always make a practice of announcing what we are handing over, e.g., “This is €30,” and waiting while he acknowledges it. We live and learn!

Disclosure: We were guests of the Royal Olympic Hotel, but without any requirement that we blog, review, or in any way recommend the hotel.