I finally had time to sit down and plan my leave for 2017. Although the vast, unexplored spaces of South America and Africa beckoned, I consider myself to be pathologically boring and decided to visit the USA (again). But just so no one could call me predictable, I decided to explore the great state of Florida this time round.
Miami would be my first port of call. My virgin US open experience had whet my appetite for more high quality tennis and the Miami Masters were scheduled to take place at the end of March/start of April.
But Miami is also known for great beaches, beautiful art deco buildings, Cuban and Argentine influenced cuisine and much more.
And since I’m in Florida, it only made sense to visit Orlando too. I do love theme parks and the idea of visiting the theme park capital of the world, excites me to no end. Orlando boasts Disney World, the Epcot Centre, Discovery Cove, Universal Studios, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Legoland. Seaworld…the list goes on and on.
I’ll definitely do a separate writeup on Orlando and Miami with things to do ala my DC trip report, but let’s first look at the higlight of the trip- getting there!
Getting to the States
It’s not that straightforward to get from Singapore to Miami on miles (if you’re wiling to pay revenue prices you could fly SIN-LHR-MIA, with the LHR-MIA leg operated by Virgin Atlantic). The closest major international airports to Miami were Houston and New York, both of which were about 2.5 hour connecting flights away from Miami. SQ25/26 is one of the hardest routes to clear award flights on, so I decided to look at Houston instead.
SQ recently announced that it would start routing its IAH flight through Manchester instead of Moscow, presumably due to the downturn in the global oil sector leading to less oil-related travel between Houston and Moscow. The flight is currently operated in a 3-class 77W (with the 2006 premium cabin products) but eagle eyed observers noted that from 1 Jan 2017 First Class space was no longer available for redemption or revenue bookings. The most logical conclusion was that SQ has identified this route for deploying the A350.
I’m going to fly Thai’s A350 in December from Bangkok to Singapore, but this will be my first long haul A350 experience and I’m really excited.
SQ’s A350 has its newest (2013) business class seat, and although there are some complaints out there about how narrow the cabin is, I think it’ll still be a great trip report to write. The cost of a one-way redemption was 72,250 miles + S$412 of taxes.
Once I land in Houston I have 90 minutes to make my connection to a domestic flight to Miami. It’s a short connection for international-domestic and some might say I’m playing with fire, but I’ve recently been approved for Global Entry which gives me a good feeling about this. What could possibly go wrong!
I did so because the one-way ticket prices from Houston to Miami that matched my schedule were in excess of S$400. 12,500 miles and S$8 of taxes got me my United economy ticket. It’s a 2.5 hour flight and since Netflix now lets you download movies to watch offline, I figured I’d be just fine.
Getting back to Singapore
The next problem I faced was how to get back from the States. I had two options.
I could fly back to IAH and take EVA back to Singapore. The problem was that flights between Orlando and Houston were expensive and didn’t suit my timings. The most workable option was to fly with United, but that would get me into Houston at 5.55pm for a flight that took off after midnight.
And that would be an awkward kind of layover, because it’s too long to stay in the airport and too short to go out and explore. Plus, I didn’t really fancy paying US$70 for an Uber roundtrip to downtown Houston for just a couple of hours, with my bags in tow.
So I looked at option 2 instead, which was to fly to JFK and take EVA’s 1.25am flight home. And that solved it- Jetblue was offering S$219 tickets one way from Orlando to JFK (with a bag included- any FYI, Jetblue flights now earn Krisflyer miles) that got me into JFK at 11pm. That was plenty of time to make the connection.
Despite hearing so many great things about Jetblue, this is actually going to be my first time flying with them, It’s unfortunate I couldn’t take advantage of their great points matching promotion not too long ago, but I’m nonetheless excited to see why this LCC is so much more loved than the legacy carriers in the states.
The only downside of this arrangement is that EVA operates its Hello Kitty service to Houston but not New York.
High on my to-do list is try one of the EVA Air Hello Kitty flights at some point in the future. But I guess that’ll have to wait until I travel one of the follow routes…
Sidenote: I cannot access the EVA Air Hello Kitty website from my office. why? Well…
The flight cost me 78,000 Lifemiles +$30 of taxes for a total outlay of about US$1,100 (I bought my Lifemiles at 1.375 cents during the last sale)
My only regret is that I really wanted to try a new cabin product this time round. I suppose SQ’s A350 sort of counts, but I was secretly hoping there’d be award space on Asiana’s Business/First class or something available with one of the European carriers.
Has anyone been to Miami/Orlando? Any highlights/must dos?
When I told people I was going to Washington DC, the most common response I got was “why?”
It’s true, Washington DC doesn’t come to many people’s minds when you think “tourist destination”. But I think that’s a tad bit unfair given the political and cultural importance of the city to the world. DC, after all, is the place where you’ll find famous sights like the Washington monument, the Jefferson memorial, the Lincoln memorial, all the Smithsonians, Library of Congress, numerous war memorials etc etc. And TripAdvisor seems to think it’s great…
One of the nicest things about DC is how compact it is (from a tourist’s point of view anyway). All the main attractions can be found in the area known as The National Mall, just across the river from neighboring Arlington Virginia.
Here’s where you’ll find all the Smithsonians, the Washington Monument, the US Capitol, The White House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the campy but still good International Spy Museum, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and much more. It’s probably not walkable on a blazing hot September afternoon (which is when I was there), but there are metro stations and you can use your 10 x $5 free Lyft rides to get around.
The first stop for me was of course the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, a wet dream for any AV geek (AV means aviation, before you start asking questions…)
The museum is completely free. Not free in the New York Natural History Museum “it’s pay what you want but we’re going to make you come up to the counter and have an awkward discussion with the staff so you feel really bad saying I’d like to pay $1 please” kind of free, free as in you walk in and explore. No ticket needed.
The museum has many exhibits dedicated to air and space exploration.
You can see a mock up of the Apollo 11 lander
Mockups of USAF spy planes
There was even a special Star Trek display to commemorate some special event in the show’s history that I would probably know about if I were into that sort of thing.
And an entire section dedicated to just civilian transport aircraft.
There’s even the nose section of a defunct 747 here. See that gangway on the top right of the photo? You can go into the hump of the 747 and explore inside. It’s sad to think there will be many kids who will never get the chance to experience the awe of flying on a 747 (or an A380, given that the future economic viability of the aircraft is being called into question)
There’s an exhibit dedicated to commercial aviation within the US which I found quite fascinating. It tracks the times and fortunes of US commercial aviation, from the wild west frontier days where every man and his dog owned an airline, to the consolidation crunch after the deregulation act was passed, to the current day how-did-it-get-to-this LCC by default model.
Southwest Airlines stewardesses used to dress like this. Yup.
But I personally prefer the space helmet outfit
This was truly the golden age of travel. Ah, for the days when people dressed up to fly.
And it was perfectly ok to be sexist in your stewardess recruitment ads.
Your boarding passes certainly looked a lot nicer than SQ’s newly designed all-white abomination
These old-timey flight crew outfits still look really dapper.
As does the pilot garb
There was a special photography exhibition on airport control towers. How whimsical!
After taking the first two photos, I decided to take the subsequent ones without the explanatory panel so I could test myself further down the road as to how many I could remember. Unfortunately, I’ve since forgotten what is what. Any boffins want to help me out?
Elsewhere on the National Mall you’ll find the famous Washington Monument, the biggest phallus shaped tourist attraction there is.
By sheer coincidence, I visited on the morning of September 11th, and as such all the flags were at half mast as the nation marked the event.
Further down from the Washington Monument you’ll find the Lincoln Memorial
It’s a pretty inspiring sight to see ol’ Honest Abe larger than life, but the sheer volume of people inside the monument and the high volume of selfie sticks makes this a place better visited at the crack of dawn.
Looking across from the Lincoln Memorial you’ll see the long reflecting pool and the Washington Monument on the other side
The White House, sadly, is only viewable from afar. There are official tours available which foreigners can book through their embassy but they’re not possible for Singaporeans to book, for whatever reason. I thought back to my experience in Seoul and how I wanted to visit the DMZ before learning that Singapore citizens weren’t able to go on the tour (or at least not without special permission and extensive screening). The reason is never explicitly given but part of me thinks there are concerns to do with our Chinese heritage (and how China backs the North). Who knows if similar forces are at play here?
Request for White House Tours
The Embassy has confirmed with the US State Department that at this point in time there are No Group Tours to the White House despite the information posted on the official website. As such, we are unable to facilitate any request for tours to the White House.
The best you can do is a spot where you can view the White House lawn.
And there’s a White House Visitor Centre. I say give this a miss- apart from a short film on the history of the building there isn’t an awful lot to see.
Unless you’re interested in seeing how the chairs in the White House press room have evolved…
The US Capitol is another place to visit with free tours available. Security is super tight (you can’t even bring in bottled water) but that’s because it’s an actual workplace. I caught a glimpse of Paul Ryan en route to his office, probably deciding how to explain away Donald Trump’s latest social faux pas.
There is some amazing architecture in here.
And Disneyland-esque statues of past presidents. Here’s to you, Regan!
And to you too Gerald Ford. How anyone could ever lose an election to Carter I’ll never know…
Amazingly, the Pentagon (technically in Arlington Virginia, not DC) offers guided tours. You need to register at least 14 days in advance of the tour and provide your personal info so they can run a background check on you, but hey, it gives you a chance to visit one of the most restricted places on earth so why not.
Their website is laughably bad though- that CGI soldier looks like something out of Call of Duty
Understandably, security is tight. The only place you can take photos is in the waiting area. That gives you a chance to pose with this press briefing podium (makes for a great Christmas card)
And this giant golden eagle. Because nothing says manifest destiny like a giant gold eagle.
The tour itself is interesting if not spectacular. No, you won’t be taken to NORAD central command. You won’t see live satellite feeds of troop movements in Tajikistan. The truth, in actuality, is often a lot more mundane. What you will see is the world’s largest office complex, complete with all the amenities you’d expect in a small city. There is a post office, a florist, a supermarket, and all the trappings you’d expect in a strip mall like dry cleaning and a movie rental kiosk. There are many static displays within the building describing the history of the building (and the US Military in general) but you won’t really have time to stop and read any of them. You’ll be very closely shepherded by your two tour guides. One walks at the front and one at the back, to ensure people don’t get lost looking for the loo. This is the kind of tour that you really don’t want to disobey the tour guide.
But one of the most poignant sites to visit is actually outside of the Pentagon, where there is a memorial park to mark the attack on the Pentagon on September 11th.
If you go during the evening, you can avoid the sun and see the special light up.
The park consists of a series of benches, one for each victim of the Pentagon attacks.
Each bench is either oriented towards the Pentagon or away from it. The benches which are pointing towards the Pentagon mark those victims who were on American Flight 77. The benches pointing out from the Pentagon mark the victims who worked in the Pentagon.
Each bench has a line running from it to the periphery of the park. On the periphery you can find a year stone marking the year of birth of each of the victims. The year stones run in chronological order. The youngest victim of the Pentagon attacks was only 3 years old. 3 years old, and a life snuffed out.
Each bench also has a small pool beneath it that flows into a central source.
I’m sure there’s a reason for this, but every memorial I’ve visited that marks some horrible atrocity has a prominent water feature. Like the Korean war museum in Seoul. Like the Apartheid museum in Jo’burg. Like the WTC memorial in New York City. Like the Holocaust memorial in DC.
I suppose you could read the significance of the water in many ways. Perhaps the running water expresses a hope that we can one day be cleansed of all the hatred and evil that drove men to commit such vile acts. Perhaps the water is supposed to evoke comparisons with Lady McBeth and her vain efforts to wipe this damned spot from her hands. Perhaps the water is meant to signify the rebirth that Christians believe happens through baptism.
In fact, DC is full of memorials to events that mankind would rather forget.
Want to be depressed? Try visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (free entry). This museum documents the events leading up to the Holocaust, the deafening silence of the world towards it, the horrors endured by the Jewish people and “never again”.
At the end of the exhibit there is a large, silent empty room with high ceilings and this flame that burns all day and night.
Look up and you’ll see this inscription
This quotes from Genesis 4:10, after Cain has slain his brother Abel.
“What has thou done? Hark! Thy brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”
In many ways this verse captures the horrors evoked by the Holocaust; the abject horror that comes from realizing that man was capable on inflicting such evil on his brother. It’s enough to give you chills.
Elsewhere on the Mall you’ll find monuments to other wars like the Vietnam War.
The name of every American serviceman and woman who perished in that conflict is printed on this memorial wall. Here’s a harrowing thought. This wall is 150m long. If you wanted to list the name of every single man, woman and child who died in this war regardless of nationality, you’d need a wall 6.8 km long. Let that sink in.
You might notice how shiny the wall is. It’s deliberately done- the idea is that you stare into the wall of names and see yourself, and know that these names were people like yourself too, with families, hopes and dreams, whose lives were cut short by violence and malice.
Also worth a visit is Arlington National Cemetery. I went as part of a free tour with DC by Foot. They run some great tours so you should definitely check them out if you’re in DC. And please tip, it’s their livelihood.
Some of the more interesting memorials included the Space Shuttle Columbia memorial.
And the Space Shuttle Challenger memorial.
You can find the resting place of JFK and his wife
And the masthead of the USS Maine (which you’ll remember from learning about the Spanish American war in school. Wait, what?)
This amphitheater is where the sitting US president attends Memorial Day each year
And just outside is the changing of the guards ceremony that runs every hour or so. There is always a guard on duty there, day or night, winter or spring. When September 11 happened they say the guard on duty was able to see the aircraft flying over him and the subsequent smoke rising from the city.
Dining in DC
And now, on to less sobering thoughts- food and dining options in DC.
Dining wise I tried out Momofuku CCDC, trying to review as many Momofukus as I could on this trip. The quality was decidedly average however. I enjoyed these shrimp buns, they reminded me of the Thai shrimp cakes
But the shredded pork ramen was the epitome of average. I suppose DC is not really the place to order ramen but still…
The best part of the meal was the wine list. They served this amazing sparkling Riesling that try as I might I couldn’t find in the supermarket.
For those of you who might be interested in trying a new kind of bubbly, definitely check this out.
Also worth checking out is Union Market. I do love these warehouse style gourmet markets, they remind me a lot of Eataly or Chelsea Market.
Naturally I made a beeline towards the Italian restaurant there, although I’m led to believe the Korean food there is very good too.
Elsewhere- I think the only acceptable way to do pizza is Neapolitan style, and Menomale does a very passable interpretation of it (I’m a snob, I know)
If you’ve not yet familiarized yourself with the joy of Neapolitan style pizza, I highly recommend you read this article to get up to speed. I firmly believe that when you enjoy pizza the way it’s meant to be eaten, you will never again want to touch Pizza Hut.
Those who know me know that I have high standards for Italian food, and Fiola Mare absolutely exceeded those standards.
It’s a nice waterfront restaurant that is pricey but has an ok value set lunch menu. For $22 you get a choice of a beverage and entree-
What you see in the photo is the Gragnano Spaghetti Chitarra, only I asked them to use dry Spaghetti instead of fresh because dry > fresh. Seriously.
One place you absolutely need to visit is Market Lunch in Eastern Market. My advice is to go in the mornings during a weekday, because the crowds are insane.
And with good reason. I know the food below doesn’t look amazing, but you need to take my word for it that it is life changing.
Ask for the bluebuck pancakes (only available on weekends sadly). These blueberry buckwheat pancakes are fluffy, stuffed with blueberries and are the best pancakes I have had since Australia. And believe me when I say that is high praise.
They also serve amazing crabcakes. I like crabmeat but am generally very meh about crabcakes. Not these. They’re light, stuffed with crabmeat and crispy on the outside while moist on the inside.
Part of the menu is here. This is the weekend selection
And these are the weekend crowds. Don’t worry, the staff will assign seats on the weekend.
The rest of Eastern Market is definitely worth a walkaround. There are many fruit vendors offering free samples of their wares- when I was there peaches were just about to come into season
So Washington DC might not be at the top of your to-do list, but if you have a fascination with American history as I do it’s certainly a great place to travel to from NY