Thursday, June 30, 2016

Bissinger's Chocolate Tour

We tried to squeeze in a bit more fun before Lydia's summer of wonder came to an end. We'd had a tour of the Bissinger's chocolate factory on our list and decided it was time to cross it off.

Bissinger's is a St. Louis company but it has roots in France. The story is a little convoluted but the Bissinger family has been in the business over 350 years and was granted the title of Confiseur Imperial (Confectioner of the Empire) by King Louis XIV. Now I think a member of that family came to the US and set up his own shop, and they say they use some of the original recipes, but a lot of it is probably marketing.

The factory building was a cool old rail depot that has recently been refurbished.

We got to put on ridiculous getups to see the factory floor. Bissinger's makes lots of high end fancy stuff with crazy ingredients like ghost peppers and bacon salt. I really like their chocolate covered wine grapes. I learned that they partially dehydrate the grape and then rehydrate it with wine to get it extra winey.

At one point they were talking to us about cacao beans and the others were impressed but Lydia and I have cracked open one of those alien pod looking things and sucked the weird sweet pulp off of the beans in Dominica.

Back at the gift shop we got to try a few samples. Particularly awesome were these chocolate covered raspberries. There was another family on the tour but I think maybe the tastes were too complicated for the kids? Lydia and I ate about $50 worth of chocolate samples.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sunrise in Forest Park

Our internal clocks were still all messed up from our epic flight from Abu Dhabi so we got up crazy early. We decided to take advantage of this weird situation and go see the sun rise at Forest Park on what turned out to be the Summer Solstice.

We didn't really have this planned out and so were in an inopportune spot when the sun actually rose. We got a few good pictures anyway.

Forest Park was quite different this early in the morning. For one thing the few hiking/biking people present were all very chipper and polite and said "good morning" as they passed by.

The other interesting thing was that since there were hardly any people out yet the animals had free reign. We saw a young raccoon, some cool birds, and several turtles going about their important animal business.

Near Art Hill is the 41-foot-long Friedrich Jahn Memorial. Why the heck this is in St. Louis I do not know, but Jahn was the German father of gymnastics.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Asia Trip Finale: First Class With Etihad Airways

This is the big finale of our Asia trip. If you want to learn about how I pulled off these killer flights with airline miles check out my post "How to Be an Airline Mile Monstar All the Way to Asia".

After a short nap we wanted to see a bit of Abu Dhabi with the one day we had in the country. I've been to the UAE before but this was Lydia's first time so that raised the stakes a bit. There was only one thing standing in our way: Ramadan.

Ramadan is a month long period in the Islamic calendar during which adherents don't eat or drink anything from sun up to sun down. This year Ramadan lasts from June 5th to July 5th. So far on our trip we've seen glimpses of it but countries we've visited haven't had completely Muslim populations so a lot of people just went about their business. Not here.

Our Uber man's name was Nimantha and he was from Sri Lanka. We got major street cred when we told him we had just visited there. Going to every country means you at least have a little chitchat material with like every human on earth. Pretty cool.

The first place we wanted to check out was the Emirates Palace hotel. The place is so fancy that they have a gold plated vending machine that dispenses gold bars. Now that's fancy. Plus since it's a hotel they serve food during the day to non-Muslim guests. Great. We didn't even make it past the front gate. A rather surly guard peaked his head in the window of our cab and told us that we couldn't come in because I was wearing shorts and they have a dress code. Ok. Nimantha informed us that security got very tight at this place since the well televised hotel fire near the Burj Khalifa in Dubai on New Years. It was just as well, because the restaurant that was opening was having an "international buffet" and I didn't come all the way here for no general Tso's chicken and taquitos.

Next we went to Heritage Village, which is kind of a historic replica town. The staff was just walking out when we arrived, as they closed early during Ramadan. What about just checking out a mall? They're all closed, chimed in Nimantha.

Well screw this let's go to the airport. We went back to the hotel and Nimantha pulled the nicest nice guy move I've ever seen from a taxi guy. When we got back it was a surge period, and the airport was a ways away. Nimantha told us he would just wait outside until the surge was over and then we could book him and leave. Very cool.

The Al Bahr Towers are covered with reflective glass panels that open and close relative to the intensity of the sunlight.

Poor Nimantha probably thought we scammed him. He'd just given us that nice discount and then I told him to drop us off at the first class terminal. Thanks bro!

So Lydia technically has been to the United Arab Emirates, but pretty much only saw a hotel room and the airport. I went ahead and put a pin in our world map at home indicating she'd "been" there but I think we'd all agree there should be an asterisk next to her record. I mean, I saw a camel race track and went sandboarding in the desert last time I was here. Don't shoot the messenger you know?

The check-in staff was courteous but seemed a bit confused about why we were trying to check in at 3pm and our flight was at 4am. Um... in America.. traffic is bad so we always get to the airport 13 hours early? 

Getting through immigration was a bit of a nail biter. Lydia's ticket was normal but mine had the dreaded Secondary Security Screening Selectee stamp on it, known in some circles as the SSSScarlet letter. I'm a bit of a big deal super-villain traveler these days, so airports are wise to fear me. A bit of an amusing scene ensued when Lydia got through fine but was waiting for me while my hijab-wearing immigration agent made a lengthy phone call before allowing me to leave the country. I'm just that scary.

Adding insult to injury they didn't even print my TSA Precheck on my ticket but they did on Lydia's. How rude!

Well we'd made it to the gates of the promised land. Months of work and planning our Asia trip was about to culminate in a 12-hour period of grandeur.

We were greeted at the door and left our bags with the coat check guy before being given a tour of the friggin' ETIHAD AIRWAYS ABU DHABI FIRST CLASS LOUNGE AND SPA!! Boom. They 
just opened this place two weeks ago, so even most of the points and miles masters that I follow haven't even been here yet.

I'll steal a bit from the opening press release to describe this place.

Inspired by the world’s most prestigious hotels, private members’ clubs and fine dining establishments, the lounge is an ultra-exclusive lifestyle environment which tells the airline’s acclaimed guest experience and hospitality story with unrivalled design, style and comfort, world class dining, and bespoke beauty and relaxation services.
The lounge features 16 unique zones designed to ensure that guests can relax, re-energise and be entertained in total luxury before boarding their flight. An à la carte restaurant, showcase bar, fitness room, cigar lounge, Six Senses Spa, Style & Shave barbers, nail bar, TV room, secluded relaxation room, prayer room and children’s play room ensure that all guests receive a highly personalised experience and intuitive service.
Peter Baumgartner, Etihad Airways’ Chief Executive Officer, said: “Our new First Class Lounge & Spa is the jewel in the crown of our new lounge offerings worldwide and represents the best of our home city of Abu Dhabi. It is a showcase of intelligent product design, innovation, ‎and superlative hospitality and service. This is not just a lounge but the ultimate airline hospitality experience and one which perfectly mirrors Etihad Airways’ evolution into the best airline in the world. 
Guests of the First Class Lounge & Spa will be attended to by a number of expertly trained staff - all of whom have undergone a rigorous selection process. The lounge features a General Manager, Concierge, Maître d’Hotel, Savoy-trained Butlers, chefs and mixologists among its highly trained lounge team.

We didn't waste time sitting down and having some lunch. The staff was very good at.. like sharing our wonder with the situation. It was a sort of silly Disneyland situation where we had been set loose inside one of the the nicest restaurants in the world and we could order as much as we wanted of anything for free. If I ordered a chocolate cake the waiter would be like "why not two?" We would all have a laugh and I would order two. Later on when I was trying to decide on a brandy a different lady was like "well this is the most expensive one" and we all had a laugh and I got that one. Man this was fun.

There weren't any flights for hours. We had this lounge to our selves for a very long time.

So we popped open the menus and lo and behold: they had a menu straight from Emirates Palace! The schmancy hotel I'd just been denied entry to an hour ago. Not only that but this was a nice five-course meal of Emirati cuisine, none of that junk "international buffet" stuff I would have been subjected to. Plus here it was free! Suck it!

We had a nice view of some airport construction.

So we weren't completely free of the influence of the starvation-inducing Ramadan. While food was freely available, alcoholic drinks weren't being served until sundown. This was completely fine with us. As this is a Muslim country and many people don't drink alcohol anyway, Etihad had an awesome array of mocktails to entertain our taste buds. An awesome part of being here so long is we didn't have a time constraint making our food choices high risk. If we chose one drink now we could simply have the other one next time. No big deal.

Lydia started off with the Abu Dhabi. "Middle Eastern flavours and traditions play the lead role with aromatic in-house cold brew coffee infused with cardamom, lengthened with the bitterness of tonic. This long non-alcoholic cocktail is sprayed with delicate rose water to bring together an essence of Abu Dhabi." You can see a few dried rose petals on top there. On this Asian adventure Lydia and I have slurped/sniffed/and chewed a garden full of rose petals.

I went for the Controlled Airspace. "Our lemon and orange shrub is the result of 24 hours of maceration with fresh fruits and sugars before combining it with almond and a touch of cider vinegar. We pack the natural medicinal benefits of this refreshing drink into a classic highball."

The amuse-bouche was "fresh dates with local homemade yoghurt (chami)" It looked like it had some pistachio sprinkled on top. Lydia proclaimed "my bouche is amused!"

You know, I've been wondering how you make soup. This chicken and barley soup had "rich broth with tender poached pieces of chicken, onion and fresh coriander."

Our awesome waiter Micael would periodically come back with a bread basket and charmingly ask "would you like any more bakeries?" We were in the lounge so long that we didn't leave, they did. When Micael's shift was over he came to where we were situated to say goodbye. A real standup dude move I think. We were sad to see him go.

I liked how bright this dish was. "Pan fried scallops, mughrabia infused with saffron and finished with herbs."

A little sorbet palate cleanser.

Lamb Medfoun, "marinated roasted local lamb, saffron rice and tomato chickpea stew."

For dessert we started to test our new super powers. Should we get three desserts? Yes, yes we should. The two outside dishes came with the Emirates Palace dining menu. They are batheatha, "layers of special dough made of dates, saffron and cardamom, filled with fresh cream." I couldn't resist also ordering the camel milk pannacotta, "passion fruit mango gel, candied kumquat and mango powder". I couldn't show Lydia much of the Middle East but the least I could do is make her eat camel milk.

After lunch we set up our headquarters in the Relax and Recline Room.
"Recline on our comfortable Poltrona Frau leather chairs and enjoy a sensory experience with a combination of soothing sounds and imagery on our video wall. Any sounds from the main lounge will fade so you can lose yourself for a few minutes, or maybe longer."
 Poltrona Frau is the company that makes the leather seats inside Alfa Romeos, Ferraris, and Maseratis.

A view of the sad, empty bar.

There were two smoking rooms. I decided to hold off on smoking until I could match it with drinking.

There was a little section with some snacky stuff available.

I tweeted a snarky comment about the awesome selection of dates available and some poor Etihad employee thought I was complaining and sent me an apology. I'm a bad, bad man.

We took turns rejuvenating our unrejuvenated parts. I got a free beard trim and Lydia got a free massage.

The bathroom service was awesome too. There was a person to hold the door for you. Then when you left they would run in and.. rejuvenate the place.

Kids room. No way to order drinks in here so what's the point am I right?

When the clock struck dark-time the poor bartenders had to restock the bar exactly as it had been according to a picture on their phones. It was so elaborate they needed a ladder.

I don't remember what this was but it was expensive.

Etihad's signature cocktails were even more awesome and elaborate than the mocktails. They were each themed after a major city that Eithad flies to. This one is the New York and it contained applejack, walnut-infused bourbon, clarified pressed apple juice, maple syrup, and malic acid. "Applejack has long been at the forefront of the New York cocktail scene during and after prohibition. In this cocktail we utilise this all America apple brandy with Bourbon Whisky and pressed apple, finely balanced with locally sourced maple syrup to create the essence of the "Big Apple". And that was one of the tamer ones. The Paris was infused with straw to invoke the French countryside, the Shanghai had soy, and the Sydney had bush flower essence. They were all a lot of fun. We tried most if not all of them.

We got hungry again from all the drinking.

I had my first black truffles which were good but I don't get what all the fuss is about.

Ate gold for dessert as is my custom at dinnertime.

Does our hunger for free opulent dessert know no bounds?

This little fruit plate was sitting on a bed of passionfruit jelly which I appreciated.

We found a new headquarters which was a bit more quiet. Here even the walls were fancy leather.

I decided it was time to visit the cigar room and watch some soccer.

A nice lady ran in after us and asked what we wanted. And I was like.. what's the most expensive?

Turns out it was a fun Cuban one. They may all have been Cuban in fact. Anyway this one was made special for the United Arab Emirates, Bolivar Emarati Ed. Reg. E.A.U.

Our lovely cigar room attendant hailed from Trinidad and was impressed how hard we've rocked the Caribbean. In fact, we started our trip in Haiti! That feels like it was four months ago rather than four weeks.

Turns out the most expensive cigar they have goes quite well with their most expensive cognac.

Our plane was arriving soon and we were on our way out the door but the staff didn't want us to leave. They goaded us into ordering a little bit more before we left like a mom worried we weren't eating enough at college. I ordered Lydia an Arabic coffee and some more dates. She ordered herself one last fancy cocktail: the Los Angeles which featured tequila, rice milk, cocoa nib, chilli, sugar, coffee, dahlia, aromatic bitters, and candy floss. "Los Angeles has deep roots in latin culture and cuisine. We have taken these influences using Tequila with homemade rice milk, spiced and enriched with out homemade cacao nib and chilli liqueur. The national flower of Mexico, the Dhalia is then used to garnish this sweet and spicy highball."

We checked out the lounge on the other side of US immigration. It was nice but it felt like Ellis Island compared to what we'd just left. They had Omani halwa which brought back fond memories of visiting Oman. It was only last year that I was smuggling a big tub of gel frankincense flavored Omani halwa through the security of this very airport for Lydia to try.

We were impressed how many flight attendants were amassed for the flight. Unfortunately I will say that Etihad was unable to maintain the high level of service we'd experienced in the lounge all the way through the end of the flight. One gripe of ours was that they called the first class and business class passengers all at once, so despite our $5K fancy tickets we had to elbow our way to our seats.

I thought it was funny how little the classic airline rules seemed to now apply to us. While the safety video was droning on the plane's South African chef was discussing our dinner options and topping up our rosé champagne. I'd been lugging around a big lampshade I bought in Mumbai that clearly didn't stow under my seat. Whatever. No one said a peep about it. On an American flight sitting in economy class I would have been repeatedly tazed for such behavior.

Well the reason we were flying to New York instead of to Chicago is that Etihad's double-decker Airbus A380s don't fly to Chicago. Not only does the large plane give me the assurance that the poor are directly under my feet where they belong, but this is the only plane that features the First Apartment. There's a chair, the couch I'm on pulls out into a bed, there's a mini fridge... Oh man. It was really cool.

The rooms each had a vanity.

The apartment's walls don't reach all the way to the ceiling so you don't get total privacy but it's pretty darn close.

Lydia got the room across the hall.

Luckily I could just call her when I was ready to make dinner plans.

Well as the flight left at 3:30-4am it wasn't long until we were done playing with our fancy toys and just wanted to go to sleep. It wasn't long before the European douche in the room next to me decided it was already time to wake up. He opened his shades and flooded the whole place with light. I poked my head above our divider to have some words with him. Luckily they provided sleeping masks so I was able to get back to sleep.

There were a couple of little lamps you could use for limited light for reading or whatever.

Lydia's flight attendant was fun. He acts like we're all doing something naughty. Should I maybe get you some steak sandwiches and mimosas for breakfast? I do believe you're onto something sir.

I informed our flight attendant that I was ready for a shower and she went and prepared it for me. I mostly just wanted to say I've taken a shower on a plane. The shower itself wasn't anything mind blowing. There was a cool light thing that served as a timer to tell you how much water you had left.

The tv swiveled so that you could still see it if you were laying on the bed.

We hung out a bit in the lounge to kill some time.

There was only the one seat on each side of the aisle.

Lydia wearing her Etihad-provided pajamas. I think all this luxury may be going to her head.

At one point while I was sleeping there was turbulence and the captain turned on the seat belt sign. I didn't even know where the heck the seat belt was on the bed!

We had a couple more small connecting flights to get us from JFK to St. Louis. We still had our first class magic but first class on little domestic planes isn't much compared to what we'd just seen.

Asia: Accomplished!