Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: International Travel (page 1 of 3)

Banff, Alberta in 14 Photos

I have plenty to write after this trip, but I’d figured I’d start with some photos and let the beauty of Banff speak for itself. Without words, that is.




Destination: Twillingate, Newfoundland

Fond are my memories of Newfoundland. It is such rugged, pristine country. Some places are worth a single visit. Others constantly beckon you to return. Twillingate, Newfoundland, is one of the latter.

The town of Twillingate is located on two small islands in far northeastern Newfoundland, Canada. Known as the Iceberg Capital of the World, tourists venture to Twillingate during the spring and early summer to catch a glimpse of the majestic glacial remnants as they lazily migrate south along ‘Iceberg Alley’ to their eventual demise.

But don’t come just for the bergs. After they drift by, there are whales to watch as well.

Twillingate, Newfoundland Map

The local economy in Twillingate, Newfoundland is based almost completely around fishing and tourism. There are several iceberg and whale watching tour companies, and the place comes alive in the summer. Well…as alive as a quaint, little, off-the-beaten-path town can.

Because Twillingate, Newfoundland is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited, I’ve decided to feature it as the first travel destination in what will become an ongoing series of ‘destination highlight’ posts. I hope to release a destination highlight about  once a month. It is my goal to generally pick off-the-beaten-path destinations.

How to Get There

There is no way around it: getting to Twillingate isn’t easy. It is well off the beaten path. The closest airport is in Gander (YQX), and it is an hour and a half drive away. Other options include Deer Lake (YDF, 4 hours) and St. John’s (YYT, 5 hours).

To get to Gander (assuming you don’t fly into that airport) you will need to take the Trans-Canada Highway, which stretches across all of Newfoundland. To continue on to Twillingate, from Gander you take route 330 north until you turn onto route 331. This will eventually intersect with route 340, which will take you further north all the way into the town of Twillingate. The entire drive is beautiful.

All of the region’s airports are served by Air Canada, Porter, and/or WestJet. Expect to pay at least $350 round-trip, and more like $550  to $700 from anywhere in the U.S. If WestJet serves an airport near you, they will probably be the cheapest option. Essentially all flights will require a Canadian connection, so don’t expect anything less than a 1-stop from everywhere in the U.S. You’ll be lucky enough if it is a 2-stop.

Twillingate Newfoundland Flights

As out of the way as Newfoundland is, it may be a worthy use of award miles. Air Canada is the only airline within an alliance that serves the area, so using United miles (StarAlliance partner) for an award ticket is probably your best bet. Based on my little research, the routing may be less than ideal, however, with many saver award flights arriving during the middle of the night. St. John’s is likely the best bet for decent flight options.

Driving all the way from Nova Scotia is also an option, but it requires a ferry crossing from North Sydney to either Argentia or Post-aux-Basques in Newfoundland. The drive from Argentia is shorter, but the ferry is longer and includes an overnight crossing. The Argentia ferry also doesn’t run every day.

Ferry information is available from Marine Atlantic. The overall travel time for the route from Nova Scotia (assuming you fly into Halifax) is a minimum of 20 hours. It is a great way to see more of Newfoundland if you have the time, but the option certainly isn’t for everyone.

Things to Do

At the top of the list should be an iceberg tour. A few different companies offer berg tours, and most if not all offer wildlife tours as well. All are well recommended on TripAdvisor. My wife and I booked with Cecil Stockley the Iceberg Man, and we can honestly say it was a fantastic experience! Do note the timing of the bergs and plan accordingly. We were quite lucky to see a couple in early July. Late May or early June is recommended.

Twillingate Newfoundland Iceberg

The chance to see an iceberg up close is a great reason to visit Twillingate.

The Twillingate islands offer some great hiking as well. The Top of Twillingate trail provides wonderful views of the town, as well as the nearby coastline and neighboring islands. I also recommend the trail from Long Point Lighthouse is also recommended. Twillingate’s website contains a great map of the local hiking options.

For when the weather is not conducive to outdoor excursions, there is the Long Point Lighthouse to see, the Prime Berth Heritage Center to experience, and the Twillingate and Durrell Museums to visit. The Auk Island Winery and Driftwood Gallery may be worth a peek as well. I didn’t see the latter two, though, to be completely transparent.

Where to Stay

Twillingate is far off the beaten path, so there are no chain hotel options. However, there are a multitude of B&Bs and vacation rentals from which to choose. The best way to search for availability is going to be via Google maps and/or TripAdvisor. A search by a typical online travel agency will likely yield no more than a couple results. You will have to head to the individual website for each lodging option to either reserve online or call them to book.

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My wife and I had the pleasure of staying at the Captain’s Legacy B&B for our brief time in Twillingate, Newfoundland. I highly recommend it. John Huddart and his wife are excellent hosts. There are only a few rooms, so it makes it easy to get to know the other guests, especially over the delicious breakfast John and Addie serve. John was also invaluable in providing us with information on a great berg tour company and other things to do while enjoying Twillingate.

Among the other options we considered, before settling on the Captain’s Legacy (they are #1 on TripAdvisor!), were the Iceberg Alley B&B, the Rum Runner’s Roost B&B, and Kelsie’s Inn.

If you stay in Gander, there is a Comfort Inn along the main highway. This makes Choice Hotels the winner among the chain hotel options. The going rate for reward stays appears to be 25,000 points per night. Gander is a decent drive from Twillingate, but it has its own set of attractions, including the North Atlantic Aviation Museum.

As a side note, Gander was used as an emergency landing spot for a large number of flights during the 9/11 attacks. There is a book about the events. It comes highly recommended.

What to Eat

The Twillingate restaurant selection is quite limited. There is nothing that I would describe as fine dining, and most of the places are casual places that offer seafood and typical Canadian fare.

For lunch on our 2nd day there, we ate at the R&J Restaurant. The food was decent, the place clean, and the service pleasant. They have a variety of offerings and are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I would suggest the seafood options, considering Twillingate is home to a small fishing industry.

Other places we considered were the Canvas Cove Bistro and the Cozy Tea Room & Bakery. The Canvas Cove Bistro is actually associated with Iceberg Quest tours.

Final Notes on Twillingate, Newfoundland

I hope you can add Twillingate, Newfoundland to your list of places to experience someday. It is certainly one of my favorites.

Some places are great to visit because of their history and culture, others for their incredible beauty. Twillingate fits a third category: places that have a great feel, an essence that you can’t really describe. It was simply amazing being there, even if it was for little more than 24 hours.

The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia

Two weeks ago I took off across the Pacific on a one week trip to Australia. Of that week, I had 5 days and 5 nights to enjoy the land down under. The rest was travel time spent on a plane over the Pacific.

But some of it was very enjoyable travel time. Part of the impetus for the trip was to fly a long-haul in a premium cabin, something I had never done before. I’ve pulled a few 7+ hour flights in economy, but none in either business or first. I did fly international business-class when I headed to Guatemala in 2015, but it was essentially U.S. domestic first-class and only 5.5 hours. It was not what I wanted, either; I only booked the ticket in business because there wasn’t any economy award availability.

When I first considered planning a trip, I wasn’t even settled on Australia. I had originally hoped to visit a friend in Guatemala in November, but that fell through for various reasons. After that, I started browsing flights to get other ideas. My list of goals and constraints for the trip developed into:

  • Fly in a true international premium cabin (i.e. lie-flat seat)
  • Fly in a 747 before the U.S. carriers retire the last of them
  • Don’t burn much/any PTO
  • Go somewhere that won’t be scrutinized by the State Department and impact our adoption home study (idea #2 was visiting my friend Daniel in Iraq…had to scratch that)
  • Keep it cheap

In November I found the perfect ticket. There was saver availability for a premium cabin ticket from Arcata, California all the way to Sydney, Australia. The routing included the ACV-SFO hop, then SFO-ICN (Seoul, Incheon) in first-class on one of United’s 747s, then ICN-SYD in business-class on one of Asiana’s A380s. Not only would I get ride in the nose of a 747, but I would get to fly on the upper deck of an A380, the largest passenger jet in operation, for the first time. It was effectively two premium cabin long-hauls for the price of one. All for 80,000 United miles and $37 in fees. Win.

I found a return flight on Qantas in economy using 40,000 American Airlines miles. I held out for another business-class seat, but it never materialized.

My wife Kelsey and I discussed both of us going. When I booked my ticket, there was only one seat available, and I didn’t have the miles for both of us in business, anyway. By the time I had enough points in December, there was a ticket available, except the leg from SFO to ICN was on a different flight. Not ideal.

Kels has also been on a special healing diet for the last couple months as well, which can make long periods of air travel difficult. We decided that I could go on a solo adventure to Australia, but we plan to return together someday in the future (Lord willing), again on miles, of course.

What can you fit into a one week trip to Australia?

One week is not much time to travel so far, all things considered. Sydney is nearly 7,500 miles from San Francisco.  Travel time cut the one week time-frame down to 5 days and 5 nights down under. But 5 days is still plenty of time to see some sights and enjoy Australia.

Plus, the time in the sky was a blast, so I don’t want to skip over it completely. The experience flying SFO-ICN on one of United’s last 747s was amazing. We did have an interesting incident along the way, but overall, the flight was great. I got some work done, watched a couple movies, and caught a little sleep in the fully lie-flat first-class seat. It was also insanely cool being right in the nose of the 747. The flight attendants were great, and they made the trip immensely enjoyable. I wrote a full review of the experience over at Points with a Crew.

The Asiana flight was great as well. The business-class seats are very nice, and the food was fantastic. Not to mention the A380 felt brand new. I got nearly 4 hours of quality sleep during the flight, so I was able to tackle my first day in Sydney feeling mostly refreshed.

Landing in Sydney at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning Aussie time, I had a full day ahead of me to explore. I checked into the Holiday Inn Old Sydney, and then decided to take one of the walking routes suggested in the guidebook I picked up at the airport. It took me past the Opera House, through the Royal Botanic Garden, past the New South Wales State Library, and down to the Australia Museum. It was an enjoyable overview of the Sydney Central Business District (CBD).

I also walked the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which provides great views of the CBD and the Opera House, as well as the harbour all around. The Sydney Harbour is spectacular! It is the largest natural harbour in the world, and is quite the sight.

One Week Trip to Australia - Sydney Opera House

The iconic Sydney Opera House

The second day included a harbour tour. I bought a ticket that included both a 24-hour ferry pass, as well as admission to the Sydney Tower Eye. I spent the morning and early afternoon cruising the harbour, stopping at both Watson’s Bay and Manly Wharf to explore. The Aussie tour guide pointed out both Shark Island and Shark Beach as places to visit. The former is a pleasant island in the middle of the harbour. The latter is a swimming beach. Not sure how I feel about that.

I got off the ferry mid-afternoon in Darling Harbour, along the west side of the Sydney CBD, and walked to the Sydney Tower Eye. The views from the tower are spectacular. The ferry + eye combined ticket is $35 USD, but it is well worth it, in my opinion.

One Week Trip to Australia - Sydney Tower Eye

Eastern Sydney Harbour from the Tower Eye

Day three was spent in the Blue Mountains. I switched hotels that morning to a Holiday Inn in Paramatta, a Sydney suburb. It was an ideal jumping off point for the Blue Mountains and was a better deal than the one in downtown Sydney.

One Week Trip to Australia - Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are amazing. They were by far my favorite place I visited in Australia.  The train drops you a short bus ride from the edge of the escarpment, from which you get take in beautiful views of the forest falling away before you. I hiked the giant staircase down into the valley floor and then took the funicular train back up to the top. There is nothing like hiking through the eucalyptus forest and under the giant Australian trees ferns.

My fourth day was a laid-back travel day. I caught up with work during the morning, and then headed to Sydney Central Station to catch the train to Canberra. The train ride wasn’t quite what I hoped, but it was a good day nonetheless.

One Week Trip to Australia - Australian Parliament Building in Canberra

My final full day was spent exploring the Australian Capital. I visited the National Museum and toured both the Old Parliament House and the new Australian Parliament. It was an interesting brief education in some Australian history, politics, and government. I stayed at the Hyatt Canberra, a beautiful historic hotel, for both nights I was in the capital.

The next morning it was wheels-up from Canberra airport as I began my journey back to California. From take-off at Arcata to touch-down at SFO, I was gone for 7 days, 2 hours, and about 30 minutes.

What did a one week trip to Australia cost?

Considering that we have been diligently saving for adoption, not to mention our recent purchase of a newer vehicle, a trip to Australia is well outside our normal budget.

Or is it? In the end, it was actually quite cheap, all things considered. That’s the power of miles and points. Here’s the breakdown for the trip:

Transportation:

  • First and business-class flights from Arcata to Sydney – 80,000 United miles + $37
  • Economy flights from Canberra to SFO – 40,000 American Airlines miles + $104 (covered by Arrival miles, so $0)
  • Train from Sydney to Canberra – $0 (used Arrival miles)
  • Other train, bus, and taxi – about $51
  • Total – $88

Lodging:

  • 2 nights at the Holiday Inn Old Sydney – 35,000 points per night, so 70,000 IHG points
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn Paramatta – used part of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit, so $0
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Canberra – used 1 Hyatt “free” night certificate and 15,000 Hyatt points
  • Total – $75 annual credit card fee for the “free” night

Food:

  • Breakfasts – $22
  • Lunches – $33
  • Dinners – $26
  • Total – $81 or $16 per day, pretty reasonable

Attractions:

  • Blue Mountains Scenic World ticket – $29
  • Captain Cook Cruises + Sydney Eye ticket – $35
  • Parliament Tours and Museums – $2
  • Postcards – $10
  • Total – $76

The grand total for the trip came to $320 (or $46/day, including the travel days). For a one week trip to Australia. Including flights, transportation, attractions, and food. Talk about a bargain. I even got pajamas from United out of the deal.

But that is what this game is all about: seeing the world for cheap. Flights to Australia from the U.S. normally run at least $1,000 round-trip in economy. The hotels I stayed at would have easily been another $1,000, if not more. All of that cost was reduced to just over $100, and then I just had to foot the cost of food, attractions, and minimal ground travel.

When Kels and I return together, it’ll be the same story. That’s the power of this points and miles hobby.

Sydney, Australia in 13 photos

Two days of my little trip down under were spent enjoying Sydney. As Australia’s largest city (20% of the Aussie population lives in Sydney or its suburbs), there is a lot to see. I barely scratched the surface. Here are my favorite photos:

Circular Quay

Opera House from Royal Botanic Garden

Eastern Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Tower Eye

Sydney Harbour Bridge

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Manly Beach

Sydney CBD from the Opera House steps

Entry to the NSW State Library

The iconic Sydney Opera House

Royal Botanic Garden

Western Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Tower Eye

Coastal cliffs east of Watson’s Bay

Flying in to Sydney Kingsford Smith airport

Hilton Florence Metropole: A Review

Location: Florence, Italy

Overall Rating: 9/10

I had some reservations when booking the Hilton Florence Metropole, mainly regarding the location. Unlike the SPG hotel options, the Hilton was a pretty good distance from the city center. I would have much rather booked the Westin Excelsior or St. Regis Florence, but the prices (both in cash and in points) were simply astronomical.

The Hilton Garden Inn was significantly closer, but still not fantastic, and the overall benefits at the Hilton Florence Metropole would be better with the Diamond status I had been matched to for the year. I finally settled on it as our best option, trusting that the views and amenities would make up for the poorer location. Plus, it would be free, except for the annoying city taxes.

We booked five nights to take advantage of the 5th night free benefit offered on Hilton award stays. The total came to 120,000 HHonors points. The same booking would have cost ~$600, so we were getting just 0.5 cents per point. Half a cent is the baseline at which I value a Hilton point, so I was fine with the redemption, but not ecstatic (you can often buy HHonors points for 0.5 cent).

Hilton Florence Metropole Exterior

Hilton Florence Metropole exterior

Kels and I arrived in Florence via bus and then train from San Marino. We left beautiful Monte Titano around 10:00 in the morning, and arrived at the Hilton Florence Metropole at about 4:30 in the afternoon. It was a decently long day of traveling, especially considering the two locations are less than 100 miles apart as the crow flies.

hilton_florence-waterfall

Waterfall (waterwall?) in the lobby

The lobby of the Hilton Florence Metropole is very large and of modern style. There was ample seating past the front desk and an indoor waterfall as you enter.

hilton_florence-lobby

Lobby seating

Check in was quick and painless. I had previously confirmed our room via the Hilton app, and no changes were made at check in. By the number (1001), I had suspected that we had been upgraded to a corner room, and this was indeed the case. The Hilton Diamond status match was finally paying off!

My wife and I headed up the elevator to the 10th floor. Luckily, we did not get the slightly awkward chaperone to our room as we had in both Cannes and Milan.

Hilton Florence Metropole Room View

Bed, with a view!

I was in love the instant I opened the door to the room. We were not only upgraded to a corner room, but to one with views of the Duomo and city center in the distance, surrounded by the hills of Tuscany! It was spectacular.

hilton_florence-desk_bed

Desk behind bed

After spending an undue amount of time admiring our view of Florence, I did notice the rest of the room. Everything was very nice, and of very modern style. The desk was glass, and it was uniquely placed directly behind the bed.

hilton_florence-desk

Desk

Next to the door was a little nook with the water kettle and glassware.

hilton_florence-coffee

Nook by the door

Like the Hyatt Regency Palais de la Mediterranee, the in room coffee consisted of instant Nescafe. Considering all the good coffee available, the hotels on this trip were failing the in-room coffee thing (except the Park Hyatt Milan).

hilton_florence-nescafe

Kettle, mugs, and in-room coffee

The bathroom was similarly very nice. It had both a shower and tub, and an interesting clear glass sink.

hilton_florence-shower

Shower and sink

Our only minor complaint was the shower. It was overly narrow. Due to the placement of the handle and shower head, both my wife and I tended to accidentally turn the water either down or off while showering. It wasn’t too much of an issue for us, but I can imagine it would be far more of a hassle for anyone substantially larger.

Overall, we were very pleased with the room. Housekeeping kept it wonderfully clean during our stay, even when we made a mess cooking.

hilton_florence-lounge

Lounge

Since both my wife and I had been matched to Hilton Diamond status via a promo at the beginning of 2016, we were granted executive lounge access during our stay, even though we weren’t on any of the 3 executive floors. I had previously been to a couple airport lounges, but this was my first time using a hotel lounge.

hilton_florence-lounge_food

Snacks and light dinner options in the lounge

The lounge at the Hilton Florence Metropole is on the top (15th) floor. It offers complimentary drinks, light bites at night, and a light breakfast in the morning. We ended up eating in the restaurant every morning, so I never actually saw what breakfast was like.

hilton_florence-lounge_outside

Outdoor seating area of the executive lounge

There were two outdoor seating areas, as well as the indoor tables and couches. The views from the 15th floor were spectacular; you had access to at least 270 degrees around the building. My favorite view was toward the Florence city center, the same direction that we had from our room.

Hilton Florence Metropole View from Lounge

Panorama of Florence, city center in the distance at center left

I worked from the lounge most of the evenings we were in Florence. It was a quiet space, there were ample power outlets, and I could snack as I wanted. Although many guests came and went, the lounge never really filled up any of the nights we were there.

hilton_florence-pool

Pool, and adjacent fitness facilities

On one of the evenings, my wife and I had a chance to enjoy the pool. It is quite small, but it had a very cool waterfall! And we had it to ourselves the entire time we were swimming.

 

Hilton Florence Metropole Pool Waterfall

Pool waterfall

Strangely, there were a few sunbeds. The pool is below ground level and there are no windows, so I wondered why anyone would want to come lay here for a while. Maybe you can tan from indigo mood lighting?

hilton_florence-pool_beds

Lounge chairs near the pool

The towels laid out and free bottled water were a plus, though.

Adjacent to the pool was the fitness center, which….I never used (vacation is about eating and seeing the sights, okay).

hilton_florence-breakfast

Buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant

Speaking of eating, we enjoyed breakfast in the restaurant each morning, complimentary of course as another Diamond perk. The spread included a wide variety of both European and more American breakfast choices. It was honestly the best hotel breakfast I have had.

Hilton Florence Metropole Restaurant Seating

Restaurant seating

As I mentioned at the start, the Hilton Florence Metropole is a pretty good distance from the center of Florence. The hotel does run a complimentary shuttle, but the schedule isn’t ideal. The pickup times are 60-90 minutes apart at either end, so you really have to settle on a plan ahead of time. Space is also issued on a first-come, first-serve basis. The morning runs into Florence were usually full. If the shuttle runs out of space, you are out of luck. Fortunately, we always managed to find a seat.

The shuttle drops you about a 5 minute walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station, at the Piazzale Montelungo. The Mercato Centrale is an 8-10 minute walk, the Duomo about 10-12, and the Palazzo Vecchio roughly 20. We did a ridiculous amount of walking over our three days seeing the city and every night returned to the hotel exhausted.

hilton_florence-bus_stop

The public bus stop just down the street from the Hilton. Route 78 goes to the tram.

If the shuttle isn’t cutting it, you can navigate the public transit system. I honestly preferred this option, and we took it more than half the time. The schedule is more regular, and there is a bus stop a few hundred feet from the hotel. You have to make one transfer between the #78 bus and the T1 tram, but it is fairly straightforward. You can tell which stop it is since the bus basically empties out.

florence_duomo-closeup

The Duomo

Florence has so much to see and do. We spent three long days seeing the art, the architecture, and enjoying the beauty of this Renaissance city.

mercato_centrale

The upper floor of the Mercato Centrale Firenze

Our highlights were the Duomo, the Galileo Muesum, the Mercato Centrale (wife’s absolute favorite!), and enjoying lunch in some of the small cafes. The Mercato Centrale consisted of a covered market on the bottom story, open most days during the moring, and then an upper, enclosed floor that had food vendors, a bar, and other specialty shops.

giant_steak-florence

The “steak for two” special. We did eat it all.

The most memorable was our Florentine “steak for two” at a cafe near the Duomo. The special on the sign said 1 kg, but I didn’t realize it would be a single giant steak!

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Cappuccino!

I also probably had like 17 cappuccinos over the course of a few days. I went from having never ordered one in my life to being completely addicted.

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Florence city center at sunset, viewed from the lounge terrace

Our entire stay in Florence was incredibly memorable. The city is full of art, history, and culture. Even after three days of museums, churches, and other sights (using our Firenze Cards), Kels and I both felt like we had barely scratched the surface of what the city had to offer.

If you ever have the wonderful opportunity to visit the birthplace of the Renaissance, I would highly recommend both the Hilton Florence Metropole, and a stay of at least 5 nights, if not a week.

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