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Happily the Fishes Leap

It’s red knots, red balloons and miniature orange trees everywhere you go; Chinese New Year is just days away.   As for us, it's the end of the road less and more traveled.  No more turndown service with pillow chocolates…   The plan today, our last, was a day trip to Macau; you can get there on the fast ferry in about an hour, see the UNESCO Heritage old town, have lunch, make a day of it.  But we checked out the terminal last night and realized that it would involve zillions of people heading over to gamble (Wynn, apparently, makes more profit in Macau than Vegas).  Another option was a village on the other side of the island called Stanley.  But it again would involve many day trippers and a complex transit route.   This was the last day of a long holiday.  We have a beautiful room with a gorgeous view and the roof pool/jacuzzi is spectacular.  So I decided to make it a relax day and avoid the hordes.   We took coffee at the Starbucks in the mall.  As we sat there a woman stood below us for a long time.  A very, very long time.  So, finally, I took a picture.   Where to next ma’am?   After coffee SS headed off to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum; it’s in the New Territories, north of Kowloon, a place we’d never explored (and where a tragic bus accident resulted in the deaths of 17 or so people yesterday).  That was too much effort for me, four subway transfers, so I strolled the mall and rooftop gardens for exercise and enjoyed the room and spent an extended period at the pool   SS arrived back mid-afternoon.  Despite the exact directions on Google he had gone all the way there only to end up exiting into a mall without any way to find the museum.  At least he got his steps in.  He also discovered that White Spot is in Hong Kong; except it’s called Triple O’s.  And he saw some interesting signage.   In the evening we went back to the harbour.  The crowds.  Sunday out.  NY around the corner.  Crazy.  We had a so-so dinner in one of the myriad restaurants at the pier, but the outlook was beautiful.     There was a lot of anticipatory celebration with New Year’s approaching.  Most of the commercial buildings emblazoned characters and displays across their facades, as shown in the (blurry) pics above.   The Peninsula had an array of lanterns hanging across the entrance.   A huge Chinese New Year’s pop-up sculpture on the waterfront had nine giant and 80 small koi, representing happiness and prosperity.   Home tomorrow.

La Grande Bouffe

      Saturday was quite beautiful (as the hazy weather in HK goes) and I was able to get a few decent view pics from the room, day and night.   The mish-mash above is the ludicrous design in the W foyer bar and a shot of the see-through elevators that connect the hotel with the mall.   They call me Mr. Gland: Downstairs first thing for our usual morning brew.  I remember in Sri Lanka how difficult it was for them to get the “e” in Glenn correct; it was always easier just to let people call me Canada.   Not being terribly familiar with Kowloon, outside the Elements mall, we decided to explore Nathan Road.  (The Elements, I think I haven’t posted, is like existing in J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, a vertical gated community.  In case of demonstrations or riots it could easily be barricaded off from the actual world.  There is vehicle access off a few ramps, underground parking, but no pedestrian access except through one minor overpass.  According to Wikipedia there is 1,000,000 square feet of space.  The mall serves thousand and thousands who live in all the various high-end skyscrapers that lie on the perimeter fortress style surrounding an inner courtyard; there is shopping in the mall, an ice rink, a multiplex--1600 seat cinema, largest in HK--access to the airport and metro trains, and security galore.  But you can’t ever simply walk out onto the street.  The mall private roof top gardens?  Yes, if you must get fresh air.  But you can’t walk away.  It’s like a cruise ship anchored in a city).   We noticed on the first day the generous seating areas at each of the public toilets in Elements; again, according to Wiki, these are ostensibly to provide a “decent and comfortable place” to allow gentlemen to wait for their girlfriends.  At any rate, Saturday morning, after much effort, we discovered the overhead pedestrian bridge to the real world and set out on foot.   Don’t know why SS didn’t shortlist this lovely hotel on Nathan Rd. with easy street access?   Nathan Road is sort of like if Yonge Street was as busy as it is at Queen and College and Bloor all the way to Barrie.  It’s that long but umpteen times more chaotic.  At the harbour there are cultural institutions, piers, high end hotels (the Intercon, Shangri-la, Peninsula, etc.).  But as you head down the avenue it gets distinctly less posh.  The authentic mingles with the knock-off, the common with the elite, Rolex fades to Casio as you wander deep down the avenue, and the crowds get denser, more intense and frantic.  Raw meat on hooks open air at a butcher, bags of clean and dirty laundry curbside, fish in makeshift ponds, and jewellery in a volume unseen since Debbie Harry’s Hairspray wig.   Hello Kitty.  Animals on Nathan Rd too, but mainly squeeze toy and teddies.   We did set out to find a couple of shops I’d sourced on Google but the malls were rabbit warrens, English signage non-existent, and we hit two dead ends.  Hawkers on the street and what I call the tailor peddlars (men tasked with snagging you in for a custom fitting) were particularly drawn to the two Caucasian males.  We did however exceed 20,000 steps on Stephen’s Fitbit.   We ended up at a pier on the water where there were good views of the working harbour and the Hong Kong island skyline.  The day was nicer than the pics indicate; about 21 tops but humid.       We had a tapas lunch at a place SS sourced and continued on with our trek.  At one point we stumbled into a mall where the cruise ships dock.   A Golden Retriever in Lego: This would look great at the Shi-Shi Palace. Wrap it with a gift tag please! In the collage above you can see a pic from the window at Gucci children; that is right next to Dolce children which is across from Armani children.  That's right, a whole mall dedicated to designer clothes for spoiled brats. Outside the mall was an ENORMOUS New Year's display.   The evening was a sort of bookend to the holiday.  We had a significant anniversary last year.  My gift was a meal at Attica, a much-lauded Melbourne restaurant and for which there is a Netflix show about the chef, but the sitting options didn’t work for my tennis schedule.  So instead SS booked us in at Amber, Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus’ marriage of French and Aisan cuisine, but mostly French; it occupies an entire floor at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental.   Amber is a two-star Michelin restaurant and the #3 restaurant in Asia on the San Pellegrino best restaurant list and #24 on the same list for top 50 restaurants in the world.  We did not set out to eat ourselves to death, as the post title references, but we did come close.  This is, in general, not our style of restaurant or cuisine; but it’s also something that everyone should do once in their lives.   The menu has a couple of degustation offers (we chose the one without frog’s legs and sea urchin).   There were five amuse bouche morsels before the nine course meal.  Each amuse referenced a sense; there was sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.  The subtlety of each was supreme.  The little blob that looks like a curling stone was in fact duck foie gras covered in a light jelly with chestnut and truffle and celeriac and a dish you really could only get at a place like Amber.  In the menu proper they subbed two courses for me, the oyster and the langoustine were replaced with two spectacular veg options, heirloom tomatoes with tomato water and pickled rose petal and in the top left a picture of the other vegetarian sub for the oyster, globe artichoke with hedgehog mushrooms, truffle dressing and mushroom tea.  Each course with a dollop or drizzle wasn’t merely sauce; if you dipped the tyne of your fork in you could taste sensational depth, how, and how long it took to create these flavour notes is anyone’s guess.   The un-photogenic brown blob was in fact Wagyu beef with a ridiculous component of layered flavour from red onion skin and seaweed powder and a black currant shiraz reduction which was over the top.  The crab is on the right, watermelon, radish and other pickled goodies around it.  The other pic is a roasted parsnip with a feast of related flavours enveloped around it.  In the middle of the nine courses a small whole loaf of freshly baked artisan bread was delivered.  That in and of itself was a feat.   I chose the wine pairings for each course but SS instead chose the “Six Glasses of Burgundy” which was, to put it bluntly, a master class in some of the finest wines on the planet.  When on his third glass the steward poured a Chassagne Montrachet (a wine I’ve only had a couple of times in my life) I thought where will they go next?  Meursault; I forgot, I always forget—who can afford the crap?  Not for me to complain, the red that came with the beef was Brunello.   The main dessert, on the left, was chocolate and chocolate and caramel; the disk like objects were in fact just a dust of hazelnuts.  The tiny orange dots were hyper-flavourful passion fruit.  On the right, neither of us remember what the egg-like dish was (!), but the colourful bouquet of ice and fruit was a pre-dessert palate cleanser in a clementine theme and the tray of bonbons at top right were served at the end with the bill.  And yes, everyone at the table ate dessert.   At the end of the meal SS called Visa to get a credit limit increase.  Kidding.  But not by much…  

Bright Lights Big City

I shaved this morning and my Australia tan disintegrated into the sink.  Ditto SS.   This morning we woke up on the 33rd floor of the W Hong Kong.  It’s an uneven brand, as hotel chains go, but by gosh did they get it right in HKG.  We don’t have a suite or anything but our digs are superbly appointed and extremely well organized for the size.  The blue tooth through the HDTV is a plus.  As is the tiny night light embedded in the toilet paper dispenser—how clever is that?   The over-considered elevator bank on each floor is a bit overdone…   However, the rooftop pool and jacuzzi isn’t too shabby.  You press 76 on the elevator.  It’s not really the roof because a bank of offices in the same building rises up an additional 15 stories.  But who knows how many floors this hotel has, all the numbers are by luck.  You go to check-in on the sixth floor.  The elevator has no fours (no 24, 34, 44, etc.).   Oh, I thought I better post a collage of the Qantas lounge and Cathay flight SS took yesterday; hardships galore.   This morning we headed out of the room early and took breakfast in the Elements mall under the hotel.  It’s a bit of a warren; tentacles wind their way in a circular fashion, with, e.g., a fire wing, a metals wing.  The W ascends from the water wing.  Plus there are umpteen levels in each element.  We still haven’t figured out a way to get to street level (seriously) only the metro.  We are staying in Kowloon, which is a peninsula of mainland China, modern, upmarket.  Of course with direct access to the airport express it’s super convenient but last time, when we stayed in HK proper, it was a little more authentic.   So, in that vein, after a Starbucks, we took the train to Sheung Wan, the old un-gentrified but hip and fascinating neck of the woods on Hong Kong island.  We wandered the streets for a while just soaking in the old and new, the decrepit and modern, the haphazard and linear.   The great thing about Sheung Wan is that you can buy pretty much anything.  Antiques, modern art, crafty tat, groceries, a Vera Wang wedding dress; but watch where you step, there is a medieval element to the gutters.   Perhaps you had a few million in your pocket and wanted a sculpture from the Tang Dynasty?   Or maybe a remnant from a temple in what’s now Afghanistan circa 200 AD?   The skateboard is a few hundred thou.  Not kidding.   As per our last visit I am fascinated and somewhat disturbed by the common use of scaffolding high rises in bamboo.   Tony thinks of SS as Pantry Magic.  Oh, and friends by appointment only, how friendly is that?   Strictly speaking, not that Anglo.   Hand crafted in Beijing.   A favorite haunt from our last visit is the PMQ complex off Hollywood Rd.  The PMQ in Sheung Wan is a pretty cool arts centre, easy to drop a couple hours there.  It began as a school in the 1800s (Dr. Sun Yat-Sen studied there) then, after being bombed in WWII was converted into a barracks for married police officers.  Today it’s a hive of the local arts scene, six floors with open air hallways leading from boutique to boutique.     When it hit lunch we headed over to Pici.  It’s a hot past a joint where the locals queue 20 deep.   They have a set lunch for about $30 CDN.   After lunch we went to find the Spingle shop.  I have a pair of Spingles from Tokyo; they are the best runners on the planet, constructed with Kangaroo leather uppers and vulcanized rubber soles, they simply don’t wear out.  There is only one shop on the planet outside Japan where you can buy them and it’s in HKG.  It took us a long time to train to the mall, to even find the  mall, to battle the crowds on the street (walking in HKG is like playing Pac Man, there is no order to the chaos and just when you’ve navigated a dozen people, two dozen more appear in front of you).  Anyway, Spingles in HKG are twice the price of Japan so that was a dead end.   The day sort of disappeared.  It hit 19 but February is the coldest month of the year here and it was common to see the locals in down parkas despite the humidity rising to 80%.   Sake shop.  The cutest sake ever.   We were back at the hotel late afternoon.  I took a swim and a jacuzzi and watched the ferries, freighters and a couple of cruise ships navigate the inner harbour.   In the ultimate act of urban laziness we went downstairs for dinner.  SS referred to it as room service in a restaurant. The night lights from our room are much better than my Samsung can display; we look across at a pretty unattractive scraper called The Bridge but between the split towers there are special New Year's displays.  To the naked eye much more impressive than here...

ME Time: Thai Across Asia

This morning SS woke up, took a shower, walked out of the hotel, across the street, checked in at Cathay, had breakfast in the lounge, takes a seat up front, and then around five in the afternoon arrives in Hong Kong; he takes the airport train and a couple of stops later he checks in at the W, unpacks, and has an evening on the town.   But as we do all this glam travel on points, he takes that trip alone; it was broth without bread for me I guess.  Wait, no, there were enough points on Star Alliance to fly the long way round.  That’s the thing with these points programs, and us hedging our bets on both Aeroplan and BA. So bad news for me is I have to take a very long flight to Bangkok, then have a three-hour layover, then another short flight to Hong Kong.  I’ve learnt that the airline parlance for these indirect routings is “marriage routes” – you know, you type in Vancouver to Chicago on Aeroplan and it routes you through Denver with a six-hour layover.  But good news, if indeed it is good news, is that while he is flying effortlessly in biz, I’m making do in first.  Swimming pools, movie stars, the lot.   We were both out of the airport Rydges by 7:30 or so.  We walked over to the terminal and he checked in then we said goodbye as Thai was another ten-minute slog to check-in.  After security we met up again accidentally; the Aussies may be lax on domestic travel but international is another story, the undressing, the body scans, the wands checking for explosives, the beagles, and on and on.  Sydney has a pretty opulent international terminal.  I don’t think I’ve flown from there since our first trip to Australia decades ago. He was en route to the Cathay lounge while I took the seven minute walk into another wing.   Thai “invites” biz passengers to use the Air New Zealand lounge (shown in the collage above).  But because of my importance, my very special status, I also had access to Singapore and, when they scanned my boarding pass and saw that it was first class, a special sliding door opens and you enter a quiet enclave of international businessmen and wealthy Asians.  It’s like a secret Masonic handshake.   Singapore's SilverKris First lounge has an enormous amount of food and drink on offer, either self serve or off a menu with wait staff (and as with any Asian carrier, a lot of congee, noodles and savoury dishes that don’t appeal so much in the early hours).  In fact, all I ordered was fruit and yogurt.  Oh, and a glass of Veuve Clicquot.  Nothing else seemed right at 8:30 a.m.  It’s good to know, for the record, that even the poohbahs (when they order fruit salad) are still getting mainly melon.   I knew in advance that the coffee in Singapore was so-so and that you had to go next door to ANZ to get a proper flat white made by a real barista and really there is no better way to say goodbye to Australia than with a proper coffee, so after a tedious round of first class privilege I slummed over to ANZ.  It was crowded and noisy but large and airy and modern and, as business lounges go, rather good.   I headed downstairs to the gate for the 9:20 boarding.  There was general chaos, heaps of ground staff, at least a dozen wheel chairs, one issue after another.  But boarding began eventually.  All I had to do was walk in and turn left.  First is in the nose on the old 747s, ten seats in this version (of which five would be taken).  It would have been excruciating to climb the 11 stairs up to the second story.   The last time I flew Sydney to Bangkok was 1985, on Thai in economy, on a 747.  Who knows, maybe the same plane?  This was an old plane.  At least British has covered up the fact that their 747s are ancient by completely refitting the interiors, but this old dame felt beyond its prime.  AV was on one of those remote controls that you scroll through and the headset was three pronged (memories of CP Air anyone?).  No personal air vents.  Still, first world problems, right?    While the hard product, as the bloggers call it, left something to be desired, the soft product was superb.  Staff all introduced themselves to us in broken English and made sure they were correctly saying our names.  They explained the service and made us comfortable.  We had an extended boarding and a half hour on the tarmac; I’d already had a drink and read a Vanity Fair before we finally got the get-go.  Who knew that John Krasinski wasn’t as good an actor as his wife Emily Blunt?  No wonder VF is half the thickness it used to be.   One of the attendants who showed me the spelling of her Thai name (which was a cross between papaya and Stan Wawrinka) told me I could call her Anne.  She asked if I’d like a pair of pajamas.  I said yes, medium.  She took a moment, sighed, and suggested large.  I mean she did it as diplomatically as possible.  But word is out: It’s been a month off the diet and there is no hiding now.  I hear there is a Spanx boutique in Hong Kong. I changed before takeoff; 10 seats with two loos.   First service (as they called it) was an extended affair.  Lunch I guess you and I would call it.  They advertised on the menu Dom Perignon 2006 but in fact were pouring 2009.  This was of course very upsetting; I’ll have to post something online later.  The first bits and pieces were some amuse bouche canapes on toasts.  A huge bread basket, a temptation of carbs, was placed on my tray like some sick lab rat experiment.  And get this, it came with butter but also half a baked garlic.  Has anyone, in any cuisine, ever experienced that?  I actually asked the staff what it was for and they told me to spread it on the bread.  That was followed by 2500 calories in warm macadamia nuts.  Caviar on ice next with all the traditional trimmings, perfectly presented in a crescent dish nestled into a plate; my rule on caviar is similar to my rule on champagne (avoid buying it at all costs but never say no when offered).  They had a bottle of chilled Stoli which they brought around with the caviar and, you know, I get it, that’s the experience, but it wasn’t even noon Sydney time.   Then came an hors d’oeuvre of crayfish, scallop and duck with some caper mayonnaise.  The soup, the Thai soup, was rather excellent, sweet and sour, lemongrass and basil and chili.  Probably my favorite dish.  From what I could see the others ordered a western main but I ordered the Thai pork curry which rather flummoxed the staff and in the end I found out why: The curry comes with rice, broccoli, carrots, pork sausage, omelette, pepper, shallot and chili sauce.  That was a ton of food.   I said no to cheese.  I said no to fruit.  But both presentations looked lovely.  They came around with some very minor dessert offerings and a I had a small berry crumble tart with tea.  There were more changes of cutlery and service tweaks than you could imagine.  Truthfully, no one needs that much food, but flying is boring and it was entertaining and ate up a third of the flight.  (Although, thank goodness for the breath spray in the Rimowa amenity kit; raw onion on caviar, garlic on bread and wine in combination are like the old Scope mouthwash ad in the 70s for those of you who remember.)   The bed was superb, the mattress pad really comfortable, the ambiance a little hot (Asian carriers are generally too warm, North American carriers generally too cold) and when I woke up after a short siesta there were some Ferrero Rocher beside me (the least tempting chocolates known to humanity; I’d rather have a Twizzler).   On the drinks menu there is a quaint typo.  They remark that their bar is constantly adjusting according to vintages, that it is selected by experts for their premium passengers served on a “routation” basis.  I like that.    The second meal service was a bit of a bomb.  Some soup (OK), and a choice of chicken satay or pasta.  I saw the American turn his pasta back and it seemed too heavy anyway, but the satay was dry and tasteless.  I took a pass on dessert.   We landed early in Bangkok but, get this, deplaned on the tarmac.  That is crazy for a 747 packed full and landing at the hub terminal.  Anyway, I was first off the plane, a first I think in my life, and a woman at the bottom had a sheet with the five names of the first class passengers and the five of us were escorted into a bus, and whisked off, while all the rest crammed into the remaining convoy.  We drove forever.  We could have been in Koh Samui by the time we got off that bus.  Then the few of us who were transferring were escorted on a golf cart, and fast tracked through security, then taken into the first class lounge.   A bevy of women in traditional dress were all over me.  Do I want a massage, will I eat, drink, what do I want to read.    I took a shower, in a pretty elegant shower room supplied with Occitane, then was shown to my own private lounge.  Seriously.  Sofa, two chairs, work desk, TV.   For the final leg I’m slumming it in business.  There just wasn’t any first class product to get me to HKG.  Oh well, the good life has its limits.  The collage above shows the standard A330 biz class configuration common on short haul, a pretty basic Thai dinner, and arriving at the spectacularly huge Hong Kong Airport.   I’ve only flown first three times, with Cathay being the ultimate and British being pretty mediocre (they don’t even call their pajamas pajamas, they call them sleepers…).  This was wonderful but if you were making the effort I think you’d want to be aboard a newer craft.