SFO777 The First Class Travel Blog

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Six day South Africa Safari

Six day South Africa Safari
via Emirates A380 First Class
October 2013
Mrs. SFO777 and I are off again this week to another bucket list adventure with our good SoCal friends. Seven days in South Africa including two three-day stays at two over the top resorts. And then 24 hours in Dubai as Mrs. SFO's never ending birth month celebration continues... with planned visits to both Mall of the Emirates and The Dubai Mall. To make matters even worse, she decided that in order to maximize shopping time we should stay at the Sheraton Dubai Mall of the Emirates. I am in so much trouble.
 
Thanks to Alaska Airlines' new partnership with Emirates and a dose of patience and perseverance, we are off in style on miles on one of my favorite airlines. For the first couple of months, EK First awards were plentiful. Then someone in Dubai realized that F inventory was disappearing and AS mileage is a lot easier to accumulate than EK mileage. So EK cut way back on award availability. Nevertheless, we were eventually able to bag some great EK First fights starting with JFK-DXB and 12 hours on an Emirates A380. Hope you enjoy the ride.
 
-Delta First Class DEN-LGA
-Sheraton Laguardia East
-Emirates Lounge at JFK
-Emirates A380 First Class JFK-DXB
-Emirates New First Class Lounge at DXB T3
-Emirates Business Class Lounge DXB-JNB
-Intercontinental Hotel at JNB
-Federal Air
-Singita Boulders Sabi Sand Game Reserve
-Odie Air
-Royale Malewale Thornybush Game Reserve
-Federal Air
-Emirates Lounge at JNB
-Emirates First Class JNB-DXB
-Sheraton Dubai Mall of the Emirates
-Mall of the Emirates
-The Dubai Mall
-Another Nobu Fix: Nobu Dubai
-Emirates Old First Class Lounge at DXB B Gates
-Emirates A380 First Class DXB-JFK
-Delta Sky Club at JFK
-Delta First Class JFK-DEN
 
Since Emirates has chosen not (yet) to fly nonstop to Denver, we must connect yet again to the good stuff. Using one of my two annual companion passes, this cheap DL nonstop is perfectly timed to get to NYC for a good night's sleep before our 20 hours of Emirates First to Joburg. As an experience DL flyer, I remembered the golden rule when traveling DL... never assume an edible meal. With that in mind, we left 15 minutes early to stop at newly opened Root Down, the DIA Concourse C branch of one of our favorite Denver restos. Only open a month with some funky decor, it did not disappoint.
 
 
 
 
And nice views of an airline I hope to never fly again...
 
 

 
We shared a breakfast burrito and tandoori chicken wrap... both delicious.
 

At T-35, we headed over to Gate C36.

And arrived just as Priority boarding began.

Delta 1794
DEN-LGA
A319
3:38p-9:20p (sked)
3:29p-9:00p (actual)
October 1, 2013
Seats 2AB

Friendly NYC-based FA Karen, provided excellent service for the most part, including PDB.

But once in flight, the usual bad DL habit of rushing thru drink service to get to the meal. Even worse today, as our FA brought my cocktail with the meal tray. Seriously??? To her credit, she had no objection when I asked if she would take my meal back and serve it later. Today's "lunch" selections were cold Herb Chicken salad or (stinky and no doubt processed) hot beef and provolone sandwich. Older and wiser when it comes to DL food, Mrs. SFO passed while I took one for the team and the photo op. The chicken was semi-edible but the rest of the salad was awful. Yo DL, how about if you fly AA and see what a proper domestic lunch looks and tastes like.

As usual, the best of any DL meal is the Dancing Deer dessert. Today's Molasses was pretty good, so much so that Mrs. SFO ate half of mine and asked for her own.

Periodic drink refills and a pass of the snack basket. Good WiFi service today.

And the always classy A319... the usual no curtain means the galley is part of the F cabin.

Even with a go around, we arrived on time at the D terminal, the only nice terminal at LaGuardia. Unfortunately, the jet bridge had a mechanical which took another 15 minutes to fix and open the door. The D terminal is much nicer than the dumps that are the A and B terminals.

Outside, a beautiful 75 degree night and the Sheraton shuttle bus arrived 5 minutes later.

Sheraton LaGuardia East
Flushing, NY

After a winding 15 minute shuttle ride, we arrived in the heart of Flushing's Chinatown or Vietnamtown or somewhere else in Asiatown. Aging Sheraton property was full tonight so no upgrades. Pleasant room on the 16th floor near the Club Lounge.

Emirates offers limo service on departure and arrival to all F and J pax.
Easy booking online at EK.com and a telephone confirmation the day before from Boston Limo. Our driver was waiting for us at our pre-arranged 8:20AM pick-up time in a brand new Lexus LS. In light morning traffic, we arrived at JFK T-4 20 minutes later.

First and Platinum check is a separate area away from the masses.

The T-4 layout is much improved from my last time here a few years ago. One security entrance for all T-4 gates.  With a First and Business Class lane.

Our Gate 6, where Y and F/K pax who can't find the Lounge board.

 

Let's head upstairs to the lounge.

Here we go...

Great lounge with oodles of comfy seating and a great plane watching.

Our A380...

Time for some breakfast in the impressive EK lounge dining room. Great selections...

Even Mrs. SFO was impressed with this breakfast...

Emirates 204
JFK-DXB
A380-800
11:20A-7:50A +1 (sked)
11:20A-7:28A +1 (actual)
October 2, 2013
Seats 3EF

One of the nicest features of the Emirates JFK lounge is direct jet bridge access to the upper deck of the A380. At T-30, First and Business Class pax were invited to board from the lounge. Economy pax (presumably any guests) were invited to leave the lounge, go downstairs and board at the regular gate.

Once the FA greeting pax at the door saw our FIRST BP, we were quickly passed off to other FAs who escorted us to our seats. They don't call it Bling Air for nothing.

Coats were hung, PJs and amenity kits distributed, menus distributed, shower bookings taken. PDBs were offered including champagne, although an obvious and significant cut-back is the elimination of Dom at the gate and substitution with Veuve.

One of the negatives of the middle closed suites and EK's staggered layout is that you can't see outside. Once in flight it doesn't matter but I like to look out on take-off and landing. The middle pair are also less spacious than the window seats which get the benefit of the curvature of the fuselage for extra space. Since the cabin was only 8/14 today, we were invited to move to a window seat for take-off and landing. With an on time push back and short taxi at a typically quiet morning at JFK, we were #2 for departure. Love the onboard camera views...

Pretty cool shadow of the whale as we climb out.

EK offers dine on demand and our FA invited to eat at our leisure. Since we had breakfast only a couple hours earlier, we decided to wait a couple of hours before eating. But not the libations... the first G&T of the day, just before noon.

EK has a great IFE system including the ability to call any seat on the plane.

with a wonderful selection of recent Hollywood, Bollywood and movies from all over the world. Also, functioning WiFi today, although not sure why it didn't start functioning until we left US airspace.

At a cost of US$20 for 100mg of download/upload, I wound up paying $31 mostly because I forgot to manage sites that frequently refresh (Thanks Drudge!) and the ESPN Gamecast of the Tribe losing the AL Wild Card game to the Rays.

And my Bollywood fix for the month. I watched Rush2, an action movie Jr. and I had seen in Jaipur earlier in the year. But this time, subtitles let me understand what was really going on. The usual cast of eye candy for both guys and gals.

Time for lunch, with a wide variety of choices.

And the wine list.

One of the many things that I really like about LH is that they roll the starter cart down the aisle and you can actually see before you select. You can do that with LH's more open suite concept. Tougher to do in the EK configuration.

Finally...

Caviar with all the trimmings including soft blini pancakes and chilled vodka

Next up the Seafood trilogy, captain's table of fresh marinated prawns, think salmon tranche with cracked peppercorns, and delicate crabmeat tower, dressed with classic cocktail sauce.

The La Clarté de Haut Brion 2010 Péssac Leognan did nothing for me. It didn't help that it was not cooled nearly enough for my liking. Back to the Dom ASAP.

Cream of cauliflower and leek soup, rich creamy farmhouse vegetable soup, served with crisp golden cheese and chive sticks. Delicious.

So many interesting choices for the main, but I opted for the excellent Chicken lababdar, a mild Indian curry dish of tender chicken pieces cooked in a delicately spices sauce, served with mutter paneer and basmati steamed rice.

The 2010 Sequana Sundawg Ridge Pinot Noir from Russian River was excellent.

Mrs. SFO went light with just a salad and Grilled salmon, served an Asian-style soy and ginger glaze, accompanied by sugarsnap peas, bok choy and steamed yams.

For dessert, the wonderful Warm banana and chocolate cake , served with rich chocolate sauce and caramelized pineapples.  And a glass of one of favorites, the 2006 Chateau de Suduirat Sauternes

Completely stuffed, I sat back and enjoyed some more movies...

And for the ladies...

And great subtitles...

At some point after lunch while it was still daylight, we headed to the back of the upper deck and check out the Business Class lounge. The lounge is a great idea and with the right mix of people can be a lot of fun.

Mrs. SFO stayed for 5 minutes and headed back to sleep. I stayed for well over an hour as we went from daylight to nighttime, losing count of the number of Baileys, making new friends with a couple of interesting guys... a thirty-something medical assistant going back to his job in Kabul, and a forty-something expat Brit living with his wife and teenage sons in Dubai. We must have had a good time as we all got "Polaroid" pics of ourselves from one of the FAs. And pleasant conversation with our purser, who was from Rabat and was excited to hear that Mrs. SFO had lived in Rabat for a couple of years when she was 5-ish and her dad was stationed with the USAF. Even in my now inebriated condition, I was able to find my way "home"... passing thru what looked to be a most undesirable Business Class, but what do I know?

Back in the pointy end, our FA had made up a bed for me in 4K. I popped a couple of Tylenol and moved over and passed out for about 3 hours.

Starry, starry night...

Time for a tour of the nicest bathroom in the sky, much nicer that the stark hospital like F lavs on the LH A380s.

How cool is it to be able to control the floor temp?

As we started out descent, I moved over to 4K and Mrs. SFO over to 1A for our approach and landing, some 20 minutes early.

An EK 747? Cargo perhaps.

Great flight and great crew although I'm not totally sold on the EK suites, at least the middle suites. Mrs. SFO and debated whether to do windows on the way home and haven't decided. The window seats feel more spacious affording outside views, but it is nice to be able to sit together. First world problems for sure. While the product is excellent, the 1-2-1 closed suite concept cuts down on the spacious feeling. I'd still rather be on a Lufthansa 744, a Cathay three class anything or an NH 77W.

 

The Emirates First Class Lounge at DXB T3
Upon deplaning, a distinctly non First Class experience. There was no First Class meet and greet, no EK representative nor signs for much of anything. Also, precious few flight/gate monitors. And since our flight was not for 6 hours, there was no indication of what gate or what terminal. No EK representative. No signs to Terminal 3. No priority security. No clue where to go. It's OK if you know the layout. But having only been here one time before, arriving and departing from Terminal 3, not so much. I knew I wanted to go to Terminal 3 but our choices were A, B or C, not 1, 2 or 3. We eventually found the First Class lounge for the B gates, but it was clearly the old one. We did finally get the info I wanted... our JNB gate was A4 and the Terminal 3 is the A gates. Jeez, is it that difficult?? Back down to the train and finally to T3 and the largest First Class Lounge on the planet.

Since we both declined the on board shower, our first stop was to get a shower... yet another distinctly un-first class experience. I can put up with a small and cramped shower rooms, but no ventilation or air conditioning in the shower rooms not so much. And the shower temp setting are either hot or scalding hot. It was so hot that one needed a shower after you got done with the shower. When you have to open your shower room door to get some cool air, something is wrong. Not even close to LH or TG shower standards, or even AA for that matter.

It took 15 minutes after the shower to cool down and become comfortable again. Next on the agenda was food... breakfast, although lunch would have nicer. But is was only 9AM and we didn't want to wait until the lunch was served.

After breakfast, we headed for the Quiet room and set up camp for the next few hours, where we were the only customers today. With padded walls, this place is eerily quiet, with no announcements or interruptions save for the call to prayer.

While Mrs. SFO napped, I decided to head out and explore this amazing facility, turning left to go to one end.

The other side of the Fine Dining room.

And the adjacent game room.

To a huge lounge adjacent to a number of gates (including our A4) at one end of the terminal.

Our Gate A4, still four hours to go.

Looking down on main concourse shopping area

And walking down the other side and the long straightaway easily 1km to the other end of the lounge.

Even a room for the little rugrats...

More seating and the business centre.

Back towards the middle of the lounge and the FCL's own duty free store.

Now on the left side of the terminal which is pretty much a duplicate of the right side. Another business centre.

One of many bars in the lounge.

With a huge lounge at the other end, same size as the first one.

Turning the corner and heading back...

Another game room.

Another Fine Dining room.

Another set of showers, no doubt as AC-free as the one we used.

One of two Cigar Lounges, comfy seating and full food menu service.

Many of the gates have their own private lounge and prayer room, with elevator access to the jet bridge (for the A380) and the departure area for other flights.

One of many bathrooms in the Lounge.

Time to explore the main level of the terminal.

At around T-50, we left the Quiet Room and headed to the lounge at the far end of The Lounge, to our gate.

Emirates 765
DXB-JNB
777-300ER
2:40P-8:50P (sked)
2:40P-8:35P (actual)
October 3, 2013
Seat 2A for Mrs. SFO777
Seat 7A yes, 7A pour moi

The EK partnership is a work in progress and that leads to less than desirable options. Take today. While I found 2 First Class seats from JFK-DXB, there was only one First Class seat available from DXB-JNB. Despite daily monitoring for the past month, nothing opened on our date. And in the past two weeks, EK closed the door on any DXB-JNB award seats this week. Even the OpUp gods were not smiling on me today. In spite of two unsold F seats, linked PNRs and my Gold status, I got the distinct impression that EK wishes the AS partnership would just go away. "Oh you paid with miles" is not the response that is likely to get you anywhere near the OpUp list. So Mrs. SFO gets F and I have to slum it in J.

On the other hand, prior to push, the purser and at least two other FAs acknowledged me by name and my Gold status, welcomed me back and thanked me for my loyalty. Apparently they didn't know that my Gold was status matched or that I was on an AS award ticket.

Mrs. SFO also popped back to see how life was in the slums, looked around with a horrid "yikes" expression, told me she loved me and scurried back to First as fast as she could trying not to pick up any germs. Indeed, I earned points today. And of course, despite promises to take pics, she slept the entire time and decided not to take pics.

It's only 8 hours, how bad can Business Class be, right? After being spoiled by the more spacious F suite and service, this takes getting used to. But once you get used to the limitations and tight fit, it was survivable. If I had to fly J regularly, no way it would be on Emirates and their 2-3-2 configuration.

I opted for Coke Light and water only on this flight. In spite of an interesting menu, I wasn't very hungry and just had a salad and prawn machbous, which was so-so. The dessert tasted like cardboard. I've had better meals on AA mid-con flights. But our FA was great, kept topping my water and Coke Lights.

FWIW, the menu..

And wine list...

IFE worked for the first couple of hours and then crapped out, defaulting to BBC news on the slightest turbulence, then seemingly at random, and then permanently for the last four hours.

Ugh, I don't need to see another Emirates Business Class seat for a long time. 

After landing and taxing to the gate, the curtain to F was closed and I waited for rows 6 & 7 to exit to 2L. Mrs. SFO then peeked her head thru the curtains and waved me up to F to exit with her through 1L. After a long walk to customs, we were welcomed with bureaucratic inefficiency. We had three choices for passport control... SA passports, Other passports and Other passports with no visa requirements. Since we didn't require a visa, I opted for the latter on the far right which had no one in line. After snaking around metal cattle lanes, it led to a dead end, where we were told to go under the barrier and join the Other passport line. Welcome to South Africa.

With no checked bags, we walked past baggage carousels and exited the customs hall, where our tour representative met us. After a stop at an ATM, we headed across the street in a spectacularly beautiful +22C evening to a very nice and conveniently located Intercontinental Hotel.

The Intercontinental Hotel
Johannesburg, South Africa

What a great hotel, one of the best airport hotels I have ever stayed at. Friendly and efficient staff especially in Quills, the main bar and restaurant. After dropping our bags in the room, the first stop: the bar.

Since I didn't eat much on the plane and Mrs. SFO ate nothing, we had a great late supper of a burger and Thai chicken.

Pics from the next morning.

Great location steps from the terminal.

Our comfortable room.

Great breakfast.

South African style eggs benedict with a side of chakalaka.

We checked out and met our driver for the short 7 minute drive around the airport to the private aircraft operations side of JNB... to Federal Air, a charter operator that flies between various small airports around JNB.

Federal Air
JNB-INY
Johannesburg International to Singita Sabi Sands Airport
Pilatus PC-12
10:00A-11:15A
October 4, 2013

Please business class type lounge with a selection of complimentary snack and drinks, and both indoor and outdoor waiting areas.

Small plane watching.

Time to board.

First to board has its benefits as Mrs. SFO accepts the offer to be the co-pilot on today's full flight.

With a full flight, I opted for the spacious last row, aka the baggage hold.

or galley.

Taxiing out.

But first we need the gate to open and let us onto the active JNB taxiways.

Really? Wonder what the daily rates are on this one??

Our turn.

Today's inflight snack.

Descending to the bush.

And landing at one of the nicest little airstrips you will find.

Cute terminal.

Very cool wheels. 

Our Pilatus departs to drop the other four pax at the next stops.

And we head for our home in the bush for the next three days.

And the legal department's Welcome to Singita Boulders". 

Singita Boulders Lodge
Sabi Sand Reserve
Adjacent to Kruger National Park
South Africa

After our short Range Rover ride from the airport, we arrived at this wonderful 12 suite luxury safari lodge in the heart of its own private 45,000 acre game reserve. Although pricey at US$2,500 per night, it is essentially all-inclusive... twice a day safari drives, all meals, wines (even fine South African wines), airport transfers. The only extras are spa treatments or Champagne, if you must. The main lodge pavilion.

The Sand River at its low water level of the year, at the end of winter and beginning of spring.

After our reception and welcome tour of the facilities, we were shown to our suites, #4 and #5... contemporary suites decorated in serene style with private game-viewing decks, indoor and outdoor showers, two bathrooms, open fireplace and a private pool. Suite #5...

Living room aka my office.

The Bedroom.

Large and luxurious bathroom with a view!

After a wonderful lunch and short nap, at 4PM we headed out for our first drive with wonderful guide and tracker, Shelley and Emmanuel.

Our first three hours in the bush gave us at times up close and personal views of some amazing wildlife.

Lurking nearby...

These guys are huge...

And our personal favorite of all the animals here, graceful and beautiful.

My contribution to the afternoon when I spotted this leopard in a tree.

After a great three hour afternoon first game drive, we returned a little after 7PM, well after dark... and headed for the bar and then a wonderful outdoor dinner.

A 4PM afternoon game drive it one thing, but a morning game drive at 6AM??? OMG, after way too much wine the night before, our wake-up call came at 5AM. Yikes. Everyone assembled in the pavilion for coffee, juice and home made muffins and breads, before heading out for the 6AM drive. Despite the ungodly hour, we did both daily drives until the last "getaway" morning when we decided to sleep in. I took more than 1,500 pics on the drives and edited them down to 200 or so. Here are some of the best from the first three days.

Our three days at Singita Boulders Lodge were fantastic. Not just the game drives and the wild animals, but the staff was absolutely amazing, especially our guide Shelley, tracker Emmanuel and wonderful banakeli Enuel. Some of the great meals...

My yummy daily breakfast pizza.

But the best meal of the three days was a special order lunch... mussels and linguine vongole with homemade linguine.

And this is what we came home to on our last night...