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May 6, 2017 / oneworld82

A beautiful day, from Volubilis to Meknes through Moulay Idriss Zarhoun

Alright, as you might have understood already, we were very surprised by how green and fertile Morocco is this side of the Atlas. This became even more apparent during our day trip to Volubilis and Meknes, about a hour drive from Fez. The former was the capital of Mauretania Tingitana, the extreme periphery of the Roman Empire in the West and situated on the slopes of the Zrhouan Mountains overlooking a very fertile valley; the latter was one of the four Imperial capitals of Morocco, if for a short period of time.

The agricultural riches of the land became apparent as soon as we left Fez. Orange orchards and fava bean fields are everywhere, and the Barrage Sidi Chahed is a blue artificial lake that helps irrigating this part of Morocco. Stopping by allowed us to get a glimpse of the sounds and colors of this valley – quite idyllic if you ask me.

Daisies

And seeing how rich this land is, it’s no surprise that the Romans made of Volubilis an important regional outpost. I will spare you all the long story (C.P. Pennell’s book “Morocco: from Empire to Independence is a great source of Moroccan history that I highly recommend) regarding the rise and fall of the city, but suffice to say that it is one of the richest cities ever excavated in terms of number and quality of villas and mosaics, and that this region used to provide olive oil, honey, wheat, and other goods to all Northern Africa and farther.

Volubilis was much more interesting than expected – mostly thanks to our guide that we hired for ~$20 at the entrance. He was a Moroccan guy born in Spain who moved back to Morocco for work (interesting, eh?), and he was very knowledgeable about the site. I highly recommend hiring a guide in Volubilis to make the most out of it.

The site is strategically located atop a small hill overlooking most of the fields around, and receiving fresh spring water from a source 3 miles up the mountains. An aqueduct brought water from there, and the number of fountains and water features in town had to be impressive.

Overview of the site

Together with the usual triumphal arch and basilica (very impressive), all along the decumanus maximus a number of large villas dotted the city center.

Decumanus Maximus

Triumphal Arch – the real center of Volubilis

The best feature of them are the many well-preserved mosaics depicting scenes from Roman mythology. It’s truly remarkable the great state of these mosaics!

The beautiful mosaic depicting the 12 Labors of Hercules

Another great feature of Volubilis were the many thermae (baths); caldaria, tepidaria, and fridaria are still visible today in some of the houses – as well as the vomitoria where people used to throw up during never-ending banquet. It’s to me no wonder that this civilization eventually declined, as the level of decadence reached has probably very few comparisons in history!

Public baths

A sun clock

Stork

Again, I can’t over-emphasize how beautiful the surroundings were – and the fact that it was a warm day of Spring definitely helped.

Looking towards Moulay Idriss from Volubilis

Visiting the whole site at a leisurely pace took us about two hours. After that, our driver drove us through the holy town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, where Idris I is buried. This fella was the great-great-great grandson of prophet Muhammad, and he’s credited with bringing Islam (and its Maliki school) from Medina in the 8th century CE, founding the first imperial dynasty of Morocco, the Idrissids. Even more incredible is the fact that this guy was poisoned by his enemies, and that his body was discovered, nearly intact, six-hundred years after his death, and then brought here were a mausoleum in his honor was built.

Unfortunately, the tomb is closed to non-Muslims, but we got to drive through town and see the hustle and bustle of it – as one of the holiest sites in Morocco, many pilgrims come this way.

Moulay Idriss Zerhoun

The ride from Moulay Idriss Zerhoun to Meknes was short – around 30 minutes. At this point we went through a mountain pass and there we were on another plain, as fertile as the previous one.

Meknes is the more modest of the four imperial capitals – also because it was the center of Imperial Morocco only for a few decades. Moulay Islaim, the brother of the founder of the Alawite dynasty, made Meknes his capital in 1672 and reign from here for fifty-five years. Still, the city has a host of great sights.

We entered through the Bab el-Khemis gate (Bab means gate), which was majestic.

The center of the city is Place Lahdim. This is a quintessentially Moroccan square, flanked by cafes, sellers, magicians, snake enchanters – with the benefit of being much less touristy than Marrakech’s Jma el-Fnaa. As we reached Meknes around lunch time, we took a front-view seat on the terrace of the Pavillon des Idrissides, a cafe with unremarkable food but spectacular views over the square.

Place Lahdim

Snake enchanter, monkey, and ostrich

While the food wasn’t too memorable, it wasn’t bad either – we had our first cous-cous of the trip which was something to remember anyways.

The main feature of Place Lahdim is surely Bab el-Mansour, the old entrance to Dar el-Kbir, the Royal neighborhood of Meknes. The gate is consider the grandest gate of all Morocco – and with just merit. The elaborate and zellij and inscriptions across the top make this gate a true gem.

Bab al-Mansour

Another feature of Meknes is its authentic medina. You won’t find any tourist here – only local going about their business. Because of that, this is the most authentic medina we visited – the only one that really gave us a feeling of being lost in a maze. Fantastic!

The most authentic Meknes medina

Bread – with honey and olives the true lifeline of Morocco

Hospitality

While the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is closed for renovation, the Royal City is a nice area where to take a walk. The Koubbat as-Sufara, once the hall where foreign ambassadors where received, lies here, as well as extensive underground prisons.

Minaret

The underground prisons of Meknes

A short drive away lies the Bassin Souani, a water repository right outside the Royal City and popular hangouts with locals.

 

Bassin Souani

Right behind it the Stables and imposing granaries are a sight not to be missed. It’s hard to describe, but walking through these dark, big chambers really brings you back in time.

The Imperial Stables and granary

Perspective

I can easily say this was a great day! Volubilis, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, and Meknes are a short ride away from Fez, and any hotel or riad will be able to arrange a day tour for you. I highly recommend you take the chance to visit this slightly off-the-beaten path cities, as you’ll be rewarded with few tourists and an authentic Moroccan feeling.

May 3, 2017 / oneworld82

A Moroccan honeymoon

After an extenuating wedding planning (and a fun Wedding Day), we were finally ready for our honeymoon.

While we had originally planned to go to Rwanda and DR Congo for our honeymoon, the “surprise” of a second pregnancy made us change plan and postpone that dream trip of mine by a year. So I asked my sweet wife where she wanted to go for our honeymoon, and as she seemed very interested in Morocco I decided to make it happen – after all, I had never been to  the Maghreb, the country has a wealth of cultural and natural sights, and the food is really good.

Planning turned out to be not that difficult at all; Morocco is a well-traveled country, and even though the majority of tourists venture out only to Marrakech and Agadir, the rest of the country sees enough tourists each year to have a solid holiday infrastructure.

After buying the ever critically-important Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided that we would fly into Tangier to the North, hire a driver to get us to UNESCO World Heritage Site-Tetouan, spend a night in the Blue City of Chefchaouen, before heading south to Fez to visit Meknes, Volubilis, and Moulay…; after three nights there we would join a private tour that would take us to Merzouga (via the mountains of the Middle-Atlas) to spend a night in the picture-perfect Erg Chebbi. Then we’d continue to the Todra Gorges, Ouarzazate, and Ait Benhaddou, before spending the last couple of days in Marrakech. To top the vacation off, we’d spend the last two nights in Paris (why not?), and we’d have our first Three Michelin Star dinner.

To be honest, the whole trip got us very excited given the diversity of sceneries we’d encounter along our honeymoon. The weather promised to be cold the first 2-3 days, but then sun and warmth were poised to kiss us.

We booked our outbound on American Airlines to Madrid and then on Iberia to Tangier, and then we’d fly Air France to Paris and Lufthansa back to Dallas.

We packed a mix of warm and light clothes, grabbed a Uber, and we were at the airport ready to go!

April 30, 2017 / oneworld82

An unexpected surprise: Nanshan Temple

Sanya offers a lot of day trip opportunities to tourists. Unfortunately, most of them are either geared towards families (fun trips) in safe, “fake” environments (think of a forest park instead of a forest), or are geared towards locals and their entertainment (think cultural parks where local minorities are on display – literally). There are some serious excursions to do as well – Hainan is home to some nice peaks – but unfortunately some of them are either too far away from the beach for a day trip or close outright to foreigners.

So, it wasn’t easy to find something to do worth our time. The truth is that the hotels were also so good that it was hard to leave them. But eventually, we decided that getting out for an afternoon was a good idea, and while we did not know exactly what to expect, we settled on Nanshan Temple, a Buddhist monastery-slash-pilgrimage site located at the Southernmost tip of Hainan Island. I was not sure what to expect, mostly because many reviews I found were in Mandarin and because the few foreigners that actually went there and wrote reviews on TripAdvisor seemed unreliable.

In any case, we had the hotel arrange a taxi for us – one-way metered fares were around $25 and overall we thought that $50 were not too big a sum to gamble on.

We got extremely lucky with our driver – although we had a natural communication barrier, he did his best to be friendly and to put us at ease. The journey took approximately 40 minutes, most of which on a nice highway.

We approached the entrance of the temple around 1pm – the area looked busy. The driver said he would wait for us if we wanted to – and not charge us extra. That sounded pretty good to us, especially since drivers at the exit could be aggressive.

And so, off we went.

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We purchased our tickets, and decided to have some lunch at one of the stalls by the main entrance gate.

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While the meal was simple, it was tasty and gave us energy to visit the site under the hot sun. The area where this temple has been built is big – shuttles run around the whole complex. As you walk down the hill towards the sea, you start noticing the main attraction, the bronze statue of Guanyin of the Sea – the biggest standing statue of a Buddha in the World at more than 100m. The statue is impressive – especially because it’s built on a small island on the ocean which really gives the impression that Guanyin be rising from the sea.

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As said, the walk was long but pleasurable overall – mostly because it was downhill. The number of Chinese tourists visiting the temple was incredible – I think we saw 3-4 other foreigners but that was it.

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Once we reached the shore, we indulged in some ice cream to cool ourselves down and then we admired the statue in all its majesty.

Closer to the statue of Guanyin

Closer to the statue of Guanyin

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Pagoda at the far end of the site - best reached with a shuttle

Pagoda at the far end of the site – best reached with a shuttle

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The statue – with has three faces and six arms – gets more and more impressive as you get closer.

 

Closer to the statue of Guanyin

Closer to the statue of Guanyin

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As it was hot and as the site was big, we took a shuttle (at 30 yuan a person) to get to the far end of the temple, where the beautiful pagoda stood. The view of the statue and the sea from there was beautiful.

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Visiting the temple took us 3 good hours, but it could have easily taken 4-5 as there are plenty of sights, including gold-plated Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

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Overall, Nanshan Temple was a great find. It’s always nice to explore local culture and traditions, and while the site is not historic and pretty touristy, it helped us getting a glimpse of the predominant psyche of the average Chinese vacationer. Nanshan temple is definitely a recommended site while in Sanya.

April 30, 2017 / oneworld82

The Wing First Class Lounge @ HKG

So here we were again – the Wing First Class lounge. I wish we went to the Pier in hindsight, especially since I have never been there. But the Wing will do it. Its champagne bar is always a nice sight, and the staff is very polite. Plus, how could we possible resist the allure of a private cabana??

In fact, reserving the cabana was the first thing we did. There were two people ahead of us, but that was no problem given how much time we had. I am still hitting myself in the head though for not leaving the airport to do to Kowloon – how silly…

In any case, a glass of rose’ champagne, and we were ready for dinner. Actually, no – no dinner, because as we were being seated the buzzer went off alerting us that a cabana had become available. Hurry, hurry – we can’t miss this chance! Champagne in hand, we accessed our cabana which, truthfully, was pretty cool. Lounging area, bathroom, fantastic bathtub, not so functional but cool shower, and clothes pressing service. We spent an enjoyable hour relaxing, drinking wine, and unwinding – just what we needed before a good dinner.

 

Fantastic cabana

Pressing service

I had had breakfast at the Haven before, back in 2015 on my way to Taiwan. The food was very good – I still remember their selection of dim sum (review linked here). This time I was excited because I was finally going to try some lunch/dinner food – both from the buffet and the menu.

After being seated we ordered some champagne and then we took a look at the menu, which looked like a good mix of Western and Chinese dishes. I ordered some stir fry noodles, while Thuy ordered a risotto, and after that we checked out the buffet. While the selection was not particularly extensive, the quality of what we tried – salad, dim sum, fried rice, dim sum – was very good. I had some pumpkin soup as well – it was good – and the selection of cheese and dessert looked fine as well.

After having our appetizers, the mains were delivered. My noodles were very good, as was Thuy’s risotto (I apologize I forgot what risotto was exactly). To end the meal we had a pear tart with custard cream and brownies ordered from the menu – it was as decadent and as tasty as it sounds.

After the meal, we stored our hand luggage and we left the lounge intending to leave the airport, only to be frustrated by the lack of easy ways out. We ended up shopping for some oolong tea, before returning to the lounge for a couple hours nap. Now, the lounge lacks proper resting areas – a shame, given how uncomfortable armchairs can be for resting (in that regard, the day rooms at the Pier look way better – too bad I discovered them too late).

Once we woke up it was around 11pm – so it was time for us to go to the gate to catch our flights.

Overall, the lounge was just as good as I remembered – although certainly not as good as other First Class lounges out there. While it’s good for a couple of hours, I wouldn’t spend more than that there given the lack of activities. Great food and snacks (notable is the tea selection, with the hot beverage prepared to order in front of you) and good champagne made us happy campers – together with the coolest cabanas out there.

April 30, 2017 / oneworld82

Dragonair (Cathay Dragon) SYX-HKG in Business Class (KA J, A320)

Sad to say, our vacation was coming to an end. Despair not though, as one of the highlights – my journey back home on Cathay Pacific and American Airlines first class – was yet to come. It was very hard to bid farewell to the Ritz-Carlton Sanya. Boy, Yalong Bay is stunning!

Anyways, after a plentiful and excellent breakfast, we checked out and took a taxi Sanya Phoenix International airport. Sanya doesn’t see lots of nonstop international flights yet, but I am sure that will soon change as the destination gains popularity among foreign tourists. The airport is still quite small, but a brand new terminal is under construction.

After going through security, we checked in at the Dragonair desk. There was a person in front of us at the business class check in, but as soon as the economy class desk became available we were called in to check in. After figuring out who was going where we were handed out our boarding passes together with lounge invitations for Sanya and Hong Kong. Surprisingly, we were granted access to the arrival lounge in Hong Kong – impressive given that this was a very short flight.

We then proceeded through immigration and security, and we were quickly admitted to the main departures hall – basically, a large room with a few gate areas. Next to one of them there was a booth dedicated to pick out articles purchased at the CDF Duty Free Mall in Haitang Bay (among others). We were a little nervous about the whole process at first (since we had never experienced anything like that before), but we were glad to see that everything was delivered in order once we got there.

As we had about 30 minutes to kill before boarding, we proceeded to the only lounge at the airport, that is also a Priority Pass lounge. We were quickly admitted into what was a fairly small lounge, but very interesting indeed. Next to the entrance there was a table with drinks and snacks, and the a circular area that opened on semi-enclosed seating areas. The partitions between areas was made by nice wooden screens, and the chairs and tables were all made of wood as well – we are talking of nicely finished wood here. Also, each seating area had interesting ivory artworks (hopefully fake).

We had a cup of coffee and a coke, and before we knew it we had to board our plane. It’s interesting to note that a group of travelers (that stayed at our same hotel) joined us in the lounge, and they made up 80% of the business class cabin of our flight. All of them – although they had very big breakfasts – indulged in snacks and instant noodles – maximize your free food I guess 😉

Before we knew it , it was time to board. The crowd was 90% Chinese with a few surfers from Taiwan – they tanned skin was a sight in itself. After scanning the boarding pass we had to walk outside for 2-3 good minutes before getting to our bus – the construction work to the terminal impacted logistics a bit, but nothing terrible.

Our A320 was waiting for us on the tarmac. This was my first flight on Dragonair (now Cathay Dragon), and I was excited about it.

The business class cabin was  particularly large – 5 rows on a 2-2 configuration for a total of 20 seats. The seats were comfortable and they reclined in an angle lie-flat position – unnecessary on a 1h30m flight but a good touch nonetheless.

  

The flight attendant came by to pick our jackets up and to offer us a drink before departure – I got water and Thuy orange juice. The cabin quickly filled up with the same folks that “followed” us from the Ritz-Carlton. Newspapers were offered as well, and once boarding was completed we started taxiing on our way to the runway.

Business class was equipped with Studio X IFE – Cathay Pacific’s signature system and definitely nice for such a short flight. The selection of movies (especially Asian ones, if you’re up to some subtitles) and tv shows is rather extensive, and it’s certainly hard to get bored.

A menu was distributed for lunch – surprisingly, they not only offered food on board (contrarily to our China Southern flight) but they also had options – one can’t help but being impressed.

Shortly after take off lunch was served, all in one tray. I chose the pork meatballs – served with rice and veggies – which was alright (not bad, yet not memorable). My wife’s salmon, on the other hand, was very good and we enjoyed our meal with a couple glasses of champagne.

I watched some Family Guy while eating, and before we knew it we were landing into HKG. The view over the city we got was spectacular, as the whole city was covered in smog, creating a very scenic view.

Once landed we made our way through security and collected our bags, since Thuy was on separate tickets. Now, she was supposed to have a three hour connection to her AA flight to LAX, but unfortunately her flight had been delayed till midnight (my flight was at 1am). The other issue was that the check in counter for AA was already closed, so that she could not re-check her baggage. We really wanted to make our way to Hong Kong for a last dinner, but since we had luggage we did not know what to do. We went to the arrivals lounge (for some reason CX grants you access even on such a short flight), and we regrouped over a glass of orange juice. The lounge is btw quite small but functional, with a limited spread of food and drinks – plus some showers – nothing really fancy.

In the end, we decided to just stay at the airport, which meant we had to sit for 7 hours in the Wing lounge – first class section of course. Not a great use of our time, but it could have been better. In reality, we wanted to have dinner and then leave the airport to go downtown, but leaving the airport was a true hassle and so we gave up and stayed in. Too bad.

All in all, our Dragonair flight was short but once again showed us the quality of Cathay Pacific even on short haul flights.

April 30, 2017 / oneworld82

A much-improved catering made it for my best American Airlines First Class flight to date! (AA F LHR-DFW)

As you might know by following my blog, I fly AA quite a lot. After all, I am based in Dallas, and overall I have never had a problem with AA (plus I consider its business class hard product to be best-in-class across the Atlantic). Usually, I have two issues with the soft product. One is service. I don’t know, but AA’s flight attendants are almost never “polished” (even when super nice) and they can be outright rude (like when they throw the tray with food at you). Then you have the food, which is almost always ok but never memorable.

American seems to be tackling both aspects. Service is being addressed with an internal training campaign aimed at improving the quality of service provided to customers; while food has seen major partnerships with renowned chefs signed. First Class out of London happens to feature menus inspired by a Michelin-starred British chef (Mark Sargeant), and I can assure you that this made all the difference on my flight in terms of quality and presentation (not to mention that in First AA now serves Champagne Philipponat, a delicious, citrusy bubbly that went very well with my palate).

In any case, after a couple of meetings in the office I headed to T3 to check in my bags, and I then headed to the Admirals Lounge. Check in in T3 is always good – I find the agent there nice and competent.

The lounge wasn’t too busy when I arrived. It had some attempt at Christmas decorations…

…but otherwise it was as “meh” as usual.

I decided to head to the showers to refresh myself. This is one part that I really like of AA’s club here – the showers are nice, warm, and big – with good amenities.

It’s amazing what a nice shower can do for you!

I then headed to the lunch section just to check out what they had on offer. I find lunch to be rather good at the AA lounge (a while back they even had a “make your own slider” concept!).

Still, I do not understand why Cathay Pacific, American Airlines, and British Airways all have separate lounges at LHR. I mean, wouldn’t it make much more financial sense to have ONE oneworld lounge in a secondary terminal like T3? A lounge offering business and first class sections, with pre-flight dining and other amenities? Not sure why that’s not the case.

At T-45 I headed to my gate, where the plane was ready for our flight. Boarding at LHR is always a messy business, more because of the layout of the gates than anything else. I managed to sneak in anyways with First Class passengers, and then the show began.

Flight AA81, LHR-DFW

Dec 6th, 2016

First Class, Seat 1J

Turning left while boarding the plane is always a nice feeling! AA’s First Class cabin is really nice, especially because it only has 8 seats. While they are not enclosed suites, they do offer good privacy and a lot of side space.

I find AA seats in the 77W First Class to be very comfortable, altough not that stylish. Just like Delta and United i ntheir business class cabin, American’s cabin look and feels very corporate – but the wood trims on the side are at least very nice. I still am not a fan of the AA seat rotating – I think that having a larger suite and a bigger tray would be better – but overall there is a good amount of space to store small items, shoes, etc.

A cover and pillow were waiting for me in the footrest, while in the overhead compartment there was a mattress pad (once more, I wouldn’t see anyone being offered to have their bed made on this flight). A pajama was offered, together with slippers. I find AA’s pjs to be of good quality and comfortable, and sometimes I even use them at home, although I usually prefer my Lufthansa one.

One of the thing I do not necessarily like of this seat is the TV – it’s not very big for a first class seat and I feel like a different seat configuration would have allowed for a much larger screen.

From the beginning I could tell the crew would be good, as the flight attendant serving my aisle was cheerful and rather professional. My main pet-peeve with AA in premium cabin, though, is the fact that the crew almost NEVER keep the curtains shut; I mean, they are already very thin – but couldn’t they at least keep them close so that customers do not have to see trash and hear chatters among them? I honestly do not understand.

In any case, menus were waiting for us at our seat, and the new partnership with Michael Sargeant looked great from the start. Also, I liked the choice of champagne – Philipponat Clos des Goisses 2005 – a boutique producer that reminded me of Krug.

I have lost the menus, unfortunately, but I can tell you everything looked great. BOSE headsets were ready at my seat as well.

The crew offered newspapers from a cart.

We taxied for a while before reaching our runway.

We took off on time, and once airborne orders were taken. I find the little panel to control the seat always interesting – redundant even. What an attempt to be technologically savvy by the Old American! 😉

Drinks and nuts were offered before the meal, and I was happy to get some Philipponat – this time served in a proper flute.

Then lunch was served. We started with a lobster (yes, lobster on AA!) and orange salad, which was good. The lobster was tasty and fresh.

We continued with a yummy roasted pepper soup.

Then salad followed. It was a good attempt to make the usual AA salad less boring, and I think catering did a good job.

As main I selected the salmon with bak choi. It was very flavorful and the “Asian” combination of rice and bak choi was very well executed.

I ended the meal with some cheese – and look at this presentation! Is this Lufthansa or something…?? 😉

The quality of the cheese definitely improved, and those oatcakes were the perfect complement to it!

Overall, this was a great meal – the best I have had on AA. I have flown AA business class (and old first class) 4-5 more times ever since, and I can attest the improvements in the catering department. Now, service is still rough – and they still never close that flimsy curtain – but at least f&b has improved. Well done!

After lunch I reclined my bed and slept for a good 4 hours – jet lag was definitely kicking in. I slept well – the bed on AA F is comfortable, and when I woke up I decided to refresh myself with a good glass of champagne. We were about 2h30m out of Dallas, and the flight attendant informed me that she was opening a bottle just for me – woot woot. She then suggested I drank more of it, as otherwise it would go to waste. Who am I to decline such an offer??

Around 90 minutes before landing a snack was offered. While ever since AA has introduced a new, revised “dinner” menu (excellent cheese and bbq sandwich these days, see picture below), at the time it was still the old choice between croque monsieur and chilly Thai salad. I opted for the latter, which was not memorable.

The fruit and cookie were somewhat better.

We landed on time in Dallas, and what was a fantastic AA flight (the first, proper First class experience I have ever had on AA!) and a great trip came to an end.

I hope you have enjoyed following our Chinese adventures. Coming up: Morocco and Eastern Europe!

April 16, 2017 / oneworld82

A short hop to London – British Airways Club Europe (MXP-LHR, BA J, A320)

I had about 45 minutes to wait before boarding my flight to London, and instead of looking for the lounge I just called Thuy (who had just landed in LAX) and lingered by the gate. While we boarded on time, once on board we were told that it was a foggy day in London, and that flights were delayed quite a bit at Heathrow. Fortunately, we were delayed only 50 minutes, after which we took off. The flight was mostly uneventful, but the view I got over the snow-capped Alps was glorious. A traditional English breakfast was served – good quality and plentiful – Do&Co’s new catering is really paying off on short haul flights if you ask me. Also, I love the little sweet bites that BA gives with breakfast – so delicious!

After we landed in London I headed to the office for a couple of meetings before catching my AA flight back home to Dallas later in the afternoon.

 

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