Sunday, June 10, 2012

More Admiration for Qatar Airways

I'm so impressed with this airline that I thought I'd write about my return trip from Malé to Paris via Doha.

The international departure terminal in Malé is interesting because you go through security as soon as you enter the premises. I liked this because it allowed them to have a half dozen scanners going at once. If they had placed the scanners before the escalator to departures there probably would have only been room for two to be set up, which would have made for unpleasant lines.

Once checked in, I quickly passed through passport control and went to the airport's premium lounge for business and first class travelers. This was the most impressive-looking airport lounge I'd ever been in--more like a swanky club than a place to wait for a plane. I'll post pictures later, it was very tastefully decorated with plenty of brown and tan velvet armchairs. There was a large refrigerator full of soft drinks and water, and a full breakfast buffet was laid out. I settled in a chair and an attendant stopped by to ask if I would like tea, coffee, or something to drink. I declined, and noticed that she brought coffee to other patrons. It's nice to not have to get up when juggling iDevices and hand baggage. Note: a US-to-UK electrical adaptor is useful both here and in the Premium Terminal in Doha.

I went down to the gate and was soon called to board the waiting A320. If you've flown United, this and its near-twin the A319 are the workhorse of their domestic fleet, so chances are very high you've been in one. The Qatar A320, however, was a princess compared to United's frogs. There are no jetways at MLE, so I walked across the tarmac to the front stairway, reserved for the business cabin.

"Up front" are roomy recliner seats, with leg rests, lumbar support, regular power outlets, and noise-canceling headphones. As I was photographing my easy chair, the flight attendant apologized that this was "not a very nice plane" because it is one of their older ones. I wanted to laugh. This plane beats the front of ANY US-based carrier's A320 hands down. It was clean and pleasant, with attentive staff. There was plenty of room in the overhead bins. I was offered a glass (real glass, not plastic cup) of orange juice with a slice of orange floating on the top as I sat down.

Breakfast came soon after take off--the third breakfast I'd been offered this morning, after the boat and the lounge buffet. The first course was smoked salmon, fruit salad, yogurt, and a mango lassi. The second course was apple pancakes with a custard sauce, and croissants with butter and jam. And Veuve Cliquot champagne. I sampled everything, and will post photos later. The food was definitely hot and tasty--far better than the odd feta fritatta I was offered on the inbound flight.

My only complaint, and this is minor, is that it is a tight squeeze to get out of the window seat when the passengers in front have their seats reclined. Book an aisle or the bulkhead to avoid this problem.

When I arrive in Doha I will once again face the bus-terminal-bus transfer, in 111 degree desert heat. I only have a two hour layover, much preferable to the seven overnight hours I spent on the way to Malè. After that it's a seven hour flight to Paris on an A340, or as the flight attendant this morning exclaimed, "a very nice big plane."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I Found Love on The Maldives Aggressor

No, I did not meet someone. My love is for this beautiful boat, called the MY Grandezza by her owners but franchised to the Aggressor Fleet. "MY" stands for "motorized yacht": La Grandezza is a 37 meter motor sailor that was designed for the Maldives and is certified by the Italian government for open ocean travel. She can carry a month's worth of fuel and provisions, and therefore is capable of making round-the-world trips. There are 10 passenger cabins, roomy by scuba dive boat standards, all with private bathrooms. The bathrooms are big enough to be used as a dressing room if you don't know your cabin mate well enough to change in front of him or her. Each cabin has a decent amount of storage, air conditioning, and a fan. In a place where the average temperature is 88 and the humidity is high enough to bring on near daily rain showers, the in-cabin air conditioning can barely keep up -- but the truth is after a couple days of diving I was permanently chilled so this did not present a problem.

The main salon is very roomy, and is cooled down to refridgerator temperatures. There is a sun deck with cushioned teak loungers, and a shaded deck with a camera table and device charging stations. We had our diving briefs here, and I also lounged here when I wanted to be outside but out of the sun. (I will post pictures later.)

I was so enchanted by the boat that I undertook some research about her via Google. (Side note: I had nearly continuous 3G data connectivity on this trip due to purchasing a local SIM card upon arrival at Malé airport). Our group was also lucky to have Segio, the boat's Operations Manager, on board for our week. Sergio has been involved with La Grandezza from the beginning, and knows everything about her and the Maldives.

Between Google, Sergio, and talking to Captain Hossan I learned that La Grandeeza was built in Turkey at a cost of about $4mil USD, and was completed in 2009. On her initial trip to the Maldives in April 2009 she passed through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea through the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean. In the Gulf of Aden she was approached by Somali pirates armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The captain (an Italian, not the man who commands her in the Maldives) issued a mayday call and tried to evade the pirates. Their boat came alongside and they put a ladder up to try to board, but the captain's girlfriend, like something out of a movie, knocked the ladder over and the boarding pirate fell into the sea. Sergio explained that, due to incoming military response to mayday calls, the pirates don't tend to stick around very long. If they can't get on board and get control of the ship in about five or ten minutes, they leave so the military doesn't get them. So, after pulling their compatriot who fell off the ladder out of the drink, they took off. The captain changed course and went very far north and east toward India to avoid the pirate zone, making their trip from Turkey much longer than originally planned. However, La Grandezza got to her new home port just fine, and has been cruising the immense chain of atolls that is the Maldives ever since. The current captain told me he's sailed her to the far southern end of the Maldives chain and back, a trip of 40 days. He's also taken her the 400 or so miles to India.

I loved sitting on deck and listening to the boat's sounds, staring up at the rigging, and daydreaming that she was all mine. It was as lovely and relaxing as being in my favorite spot in Hawaii.

La Grandezza is accompanied by a staff of nine from the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh: three divemasters, the chef, assistant chef, two stewards, and two boatmen. There was also Captain Hossan, and the captain of our dhoni. A dhoni is a traditional Maldivan boat made for transporting goods and people between the islands. We used ours as the dive boat. The dohni is highly manouverable and has a much shallower draft than the big yacht, so it is perfect for taking divers out. All our dive gear stayed on the dhoni for the week. They would tie up to the yacht between dives and do in-place air and Nitrox fills, which means we never had to move gear or tanks around.

The diving itself was memorable, and a bit challenging at this time of year. We arrived at the very start of the Southwest monsoon season, so the weather patterns were very unsettled. Currents did not always flow in the expected directions, and were often not the expected speed. Sometimes the dhoni captain or divemaster would cancel a dive and move us to another spot due to conditions. We were happy to leave things up to their judgement, and experienced a series of interesting dives in North Malé Atoll, South Malé Atoll, South Ari Atoll, and North Ari Atoll.

Although I came to the Maldives with no expectations, I did very much want to see big things. On our third day, off Holiday Isle at the southern end of South Ari Atoll, we went looking for whale sharks. They are often found there at this time of year, cruising just off the reef. We piled into the boat and headed west, and soon after the boatmen shouted that they could see whale sharks! The boatmen know exactly what they're looking for, and have amazing eyesight to boot. The dhoni got ahead of the whale shark, and we jumped into the water in our snorkeling gear. And there it was, a youngster of the world's biggest fish species! I'd seen some in an aquarium in Okinawa, but this was the real deal. I was so excited that I forgot to turn my camera on, and once I got it on I pushed all the wrong buttons! But I had a good swim, following the whale shark for a few minutes until it gracefully dove over the reef drop-off and sank out of sight. The dhoni picked up the snorkelers, and we continued along the coast. In a very few minutes another whale shark was spotted, and once again we all jumped in. We repeated this four or five times. Once I was the only person to jump in. I had a nice long swim with yet another juvenile, and this time I managed to get a snippet of video (will post later). These creatures are really big, with tall powerful tails and beautiful dappled brown and cream coloring. The juveniles were about 12 feet long, and the biggest one we saw was twice that.

Finally we donned our scuba gear and once again dropped in near a whale shark. This one was the biggest yet. After following him for a while he pulled away faster than
we could swim, so we explored the reef hoping another whale shark would venture by. My group didn't see one, but some other divers from our dhoni did--a huge one according to their fish tales. One of the dive masters later said that not only was that the fastest they'd ever found whale sharks when heading out for the day (we were only looking for about 15 minutes), but that we saw eight in all -- the most they've ever found on a single trip.

We beheld many other thrilling sights over the course of the week: a school of sixteen Mobula (Devil Rays) flew by in perfect formation. A dozen reef sharks cruised around in the current while we used hooks to hang on to the reef and watch. A lone manta ray surprised me along a wall--and just after that a turtle swam right up to me. A Napolean wrasse the size of a sheepdog cruised by a foot from my head. Considering how poor the visibility was all week (40-70 feet, when it's usually more than twice that), we saw a LOT of cool marine life.

Aside from the whale shark encounter, my other favorite experience came on the very last day. I had a 9:10am flight on Sunday, so I couldn't go on the second dive on Saturday or else I'd violate my dive computer's 24-hour "no fly" rule. I went out on the dhoni anyway, basically so I could get started breaking down my gear. The dhoni captain offered to take me snorkeling after he put the divers in the water. Once again, the boatmen's power of marine observation amazed me. They could see Manta Rays just below the surface, so they took me over and I jumped in the water to find two just below me! I watched them and followed them for quite some time, and even saw some of my scuba friends watching them from forty feet below. The dhoni picked me up after the Mantas swam away, and then dropped me in another spot, but I couldn't see the rays the boatmen were pointing at. Then they took me over to a reef where I happily swam around for a while. There I noticed three 7"-long bright screaming yellow fish acting aggressively. I was curious to know what was going on, and was about to dive down for a closer look when I noticed they were harassing a mid-sized octopus! Octopusses are very retiring and don't usually come out during the day, but this one was trying to get away from the yellow fish. I watched him swim from coral head to coral head, and when he settled I dove for a better look. He was deep burgundy, with a big pale blue eye. I dove to look at him a couple more times. After a while I started thinking I should go back to the boat so the dhoni could track the scuba divers rather than me.

Many more lovely things happened over the course of the week, really too many to tell! The food was great and included Maldivan and Sri Lankan specialties. My roommate was very sweet and a good dive buddy. The service on board was attentive and caring. Really, if I could have found away to fold La Grandeeza up and bring her home, I would have! I really love that boat.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

First Time on Qatar Airways

I seem to have put myself under a time warp spell. For the past week I've been telling myself that my flight from Manchester to Doha was at ten minutes to four in the afternoon. I even picked my departure train from Blackpool based on this. My train to Manchester Airport ran about 15 minutes late, and I checked in at the Qatar Airways counter at about 1:50pm. They happily took my bag and issued my boarding passes, and I made my way to their business class lounge. When I arrived the attendant told me he was just about to call the flight for boarding. This confused me, but I went down to the gate when called, thinking that they were boarding awfully early. Once on the plane I figured out that our departure time was 2:50pm, not 3:50! I consider myself extremely lucky that I made the flight! I'm surprised the Qatar Airways counter didn't give me any guff for checking in so late, but they acted like everything was fine and normal and didn't even tell me to hurry. I guess this is what happens when you fly a non-US airline between two non-US airports: you don't get treated like you are a potentially dangerous and/or inconvenient piece of crap.

The plane was a two-class Airbus 330. I cashed in some United miles so I could sit "up front," since my flight time would be seven hours to Doha and then another 4 1/2 to the Maldives. The seats were the reclining "pod" style, and go nearly completely flat for sleeping. To me these are the second most comfortable type of seats, after the fully horizontal lay flat seats available on some other airlines. They are much better than "angled" lay-flat seats, which a friend calls "Frankenstein slabs."

They served lunch/dinner right after takeoff. I was too hungry to remember to take pictures, but it was quite delicious. It stated with cocktails and a small minced lamb wrap. Oddly enough, they do not carry vodka on board. For appetizer I chose the mezze plate, which included decent hummus, tabouli salad, and very nice baba ghanoush served with toasted pita bread. I had chicken biryiani for the main course, and found the chicken to be very tender and the rice nicely spiced. I finished off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream served with a scoop of rose water sorbet, and a glass of port.

The entertainment system had zillions of movies on it, but a lot of them were either Arabic or old Hollywood classics. That said, they had the Sarah Palin movie "Game Change," which I'd been dying to see but missed because I don't have HBO at home. It was very interesting and Julianne Moore was fabulous as Palin, a definite "must see" movie.

Our flight route took us over Germany, central Europe, Bulgaria, and the Black Sea. It was cloudy, then hazy, then sunset, then quite foggy, so I didn't get much of a view but did manage to see the Bulgarian coastline of the Black Sea. We continued over Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia to Qatar, but I didn't see any of that because of the weather. Qatar is a peninsula sticking up into the Persian Gulf, so after passing over Baghdad and Kuwait City, we flew southeast along the Saudi Arabian coast. Every so often I'd see the flares from an oil field or refinery through the mists. It was utterly strange and disorienting, and made me think of "Blade Runner."

At this point in time, Doha International Airport isn't quite what most people initially envision when they hear the word "airport." Rather than having the terminal-with-jetway-spokes that we're used to in a place like San Francisco or Chicago, DOH is more of a gigantic paved over area next to a construction zone and a couple of bus stations. They are building the "actual" airport, but for now there is no walk-on gate service. When my plane landed, we boarded busses based on if we were ending our trip in Doha, making a transfer (business or first class) or making a transfer (coach). The busses drove quite some way, about ten minutes, to different terminals for each option. The "Premium" Transfer Terminal is quite comfortable, with several options for food and drink (included in the ticket price). I'm still so stuffed from dinner that I am not interested in food. There's also a cocktail bar, and a tea and coffee bar. It's decorated with plants and fountains, and has free wifi.  In all, a nice place to wait out a transfer.

My flight back from the Maldives next week is completely during daylight hours, so I'll try to take some pictures then.

Friday, June 1, 2012

In Search Of...

...Fish and Chips

After watching the ballroom dance competition on Friday and Saturday, I took a day off on Sunday. I didn't have a ticket for the Sunday sessions and decided I'd take the train to Lancaster instead. My intentions were good, and the weather was fantastic, but I didn't get out of bed until noon! So, rather than rush up to Lancaster, I decided to give in to my fish and chips craving and get some lunch.

I started by Googling "best fish and chips Blackpool" and quickly determined that at least half the "chippys" in town claim to be the best. I also found out that the more highly lauded ones seemed to keep weird hours. I didn't want to go to one of the dodgy looking places near the piers, and began to despair of getting my need for crispy batter fried fish met. Finally, I decided to check the Trip Advisor list of "best" restaurants in Blackpool, and discovered the Bispham Kitchen, about a mile's walk from my flat along the seaside promenade. I had local haddock and chips, and quite enjoyed my choice. On the walk back I discovered that Blackpool has self-serve rent-a-bikes. It seems like a great idea, especially since the promenade has a fantastic bike path.

...Ancient Castles

The next day the competition didn't really get started until 6:00pm, and the weather was still incredibly lovely, so I got that train to Lancaster so I could tour the old castle there. I didn't know what I was getting in to: it turns out that Lancaster Castle is about 1,000 years old, and until last year has been used as a prison for the past 800 years! It's also been in use all this time as a civil and criminal court, and a trial was going on the day I visited.

The castle itself is dark and a bit dank. What was really creepy, though, was the overwhelming sense of age. The building, although in continuous use for a millennium, is so old that they're not entirely sure who built it and when. They also don't really know the true internal floorplan because sections have been blocked off over time. Every so often they break through a wall and find an unexpected corridor or room.

Although there have been prisoners and trials there since before Columbus was born, they don't have records going back more than about 200 years as to who had been tried and imprisoned there. I found out that many many small-time criminals were tried there and sentenced to "transportation" to Australia--including young poor girls who shoplifted a small amount of merchandise. It also turns out that Lancaster (the town) was a major center for the slave trade. Four hundred years ago they had witch trials. I saw the small corner where they hanged people in front of crowds of thousands. The town is pretty, but has some bad juju.

I shook this off and headed next door to the old priory church, which at root was even older than the castle. The Romans had a settlement in Lancaster in 78 AD, and built a temple on the hilltop long before the church was started. Just down the hill from the church I viewed the ruins of their baths.

The judges who came to town to preside over the trials had a nice house built for them in the 1700's, which remained in use until the 1970's. "The Judges' Lodging" is open for viewing, and I saw amazing furniture and decorations inside. Most of the furniture was built by the now-gone Gillows of Lancaster, a 400-year-old firm that had Buckingham Palace and the ship The Queen Mary as clients. Their work is clearly a pinnacle of woodworking art and English craftsmanship.

Around the corner from the Lodging, across the street from the castle, stands a row of houses built in the 1700's. These were "artisans' cottages," and The Cottage Museum had been initially owned by a furniture maker for Gillows. Even though the owner was an artisan, he was still a member of the working poor (or perhaps the beginning of the lower middle class). This first owner had been an indentured servant, and his letter of indenture is on display in the attic. The cottage is quite small, just a tiny living room, a pantry-kitchen, and two bedrooms. A lean-to laundry porch (so the wife could take in laundry for extra income) and a root cellar rounded out the house. There was no running water, and personal needs were attended to in a shared privy in the small courtyard behind the house. Believe it or not, someone lived there--without electricity and running water--until the building was condemned for habitation in the 1970's. The most interesting thing I learned was that rats eat tallow candles because they're made of beef (or mutton) fat, so the candles were kept in a metal box hanging from the wall.

I was going to upload some pictures with this post but I'm in Doha, so the Blogger uploader app is defaulting to Arabic. You'd think it would default to the iDevice's chosen language setting! So anyway, I can't figure out which links are which. D'oh!