US Trip 2015 Travel Report

This was my third trip to the US.  What began as a crazy idea to see a Blizzcon convention before they went down in quality has turned into an annual trip of balancing enjoyment with squeezing “maximum efficiency” from everything in sight.

This is pretty long, so get ready…PER-SYD
The neat line-up between the 5:30am flight from Perth and the next to LAX has been thrown out this year, with the flight to LAX leaving 3 hours earlier, forcing me to take an overnight flight to Sydney, arriving just as the sun was coming up.  I was however able to check out the new QANTAS Business Lounge in Perth and it was very well done.

Sunrise on approach to Sydney
Sunrise on approach to Sydney

Sydney Airport
With a few hours to kill before the next flight, I decided to spend some time in the QANTAS First Class Lounge.  I was lucky enough to get the leg to LAX upgraded to first class and as part of it, was able to get a free back massage.

QANTAS Day Spa Area
QANTAS Day Spa Area

After having some breakfast and relaxing for a bit, it was time to start thinking about boarding the flight.

SYD-LAX QF11
Usually when you board this flight, there’s three aero-bridges to the A380.  One of these has signage for first class so I went down it, seemed a bit lonely with noone in front and behind.

The seat was very comfortable and relaxing.  Once we were under way, we kept hitting turbulence that delayed meal service.  I decided to go with the tasting menu.

QF11 Tasting Menu
QF11 Tasting Menu

Arrival and First days in LA
From past experience the process of getting out of LAX can be a bit crazy because it seems at least 2 other large flights are landing at the same time.  In 2013, one of those was a Virgin flight.  This year, there was a Virgin and a Cathay Pacific flight that arrived within 30 minutes of mine.

The new smart gates in immigration did help expedite that process but the bottleneck was still the customs officers with easily over 1,000 people arriving within a one hour window.

The ride to the hotel was pretty uneventful.  If anything traffic seemed slightly lighter this time around, so the trip was a bit faster.

One of the pre-Blizzcon events was the California Science Center.  Like a lot of museum things in California, it had a aerospace focus, in this case one of the Space Shuttles.  There was also a SR-71 Blackbird outside but I didn’t see it until we were leaving.

Space Shuttle Engines
Space Shuttle Engines

Blizzcon
The charity dinner that Blizzard holds the night before Blizzcon was an interesting experience.  In one way it was a strange intersection of personal and professional life (having just finished up in a healthcare IT job), as the charity dinner raises funds for the Children’s Hospital of Orange County.  I got to talk to a few Blizzard people including Craig Amai (lead quest designer for World of Warcraft) and Scott Mercer (principal designer for Overwatch).

Blizzcon itself was technically well executed as usual.  It was clear that it is struggling with the capacity of the Anaheim Convention Center.  Previous years it’s been mostly confined to just the main ground flood – this year the store was shifted to the underground level where registration and badge collection has happened, and the upper floors were utilised as well.  There is expansion work happening on the Convention Center but it won’t be done until late 2017 by the looks of it.

Blizzcon Winston Statue
Blizzcon Winston Statue

This year’s dinners were at Ruth’s Chris Steak House (Friday) and Napa Rose (Saturday).  Friday had a rocky start with the reservation system having us for Saturday night and we had a few extra people, increasing our group from 12 to 15.  Fortunately the restaurant was able to accommodate us.  As usual the steak was very good.  Getting to the Napa Rose was complicated by traffic management happening around Disneyland so we had to walk a while to get there.  It seemed very busy that night.  However the food was pretty good.

LAX-ORD
For the trip to LAX I decided to use Uber.  This was actually the second time I’ve used it, the first being to the California Science Center.  Both times the vehicle arrived quickly.  I decided to go with the SUV option because of the luggage and because I was curious to see how it was.  The driver had a very large SUV and got me to the airport pretty fast.

After getting through security, I went to check out the American Airlines lounge.  The AA lounge access rules present a real curiosity because most domestic first class tickets won’t grant access (only transcontinental) and I was able to get in because of my status with QANTAS.

The flight itself was ok, but it turned out to be mayhem at O’hare airport.  Once I got my bags and went out to get a taxi, I was presented with a very very long line.  It took a long time to get a taxi.

Chicago
Unfortunately, I felt very sick on the Monday after arriving in Chicago.  It may have been due to the lack of sleep I had been getting on the trip or some other factors.  I had a couple of things scheduled for that day that I had to miss.

On the Tuesday, I went for breakfast at Toast, which is a nice little breakfast place in Lincoln Park.  I decided to have the “Pancake Orgy”, which turned out to be a bit more than I planned.

Following that was a trip to Lincoln Park Conservatory.  It had a number of themed areas, including a fern room (which was very hot and humid) and orchids.  The camera got a good workout and as always, it did a great job of capturing the greens.

Lincoln Park Conservatory
Lincoln Park Conservatory

Next up was the Dreihaus Museum which ended up being more awesome than I thought it would be.  The museum is a house that was built during the Gilded Age and shows how such a house would’ve looked.  One of the striking things is the amount of detailing that went into even mundane things such as a door frame.  Each room had a fire place, and the design of the fireplace as well as the floor, walls, ceiling and lights were unique.

Dreihaus Museum - Ground floor staircase
Dreihaus Museum – Ground floor staircase

The Shedd Aquarium presented some frustration factor with how my camera acted.  I make a point of turning the flash off almost all the time, and especially when visiting places such as this.  However, when in auto-mode, the camera does use an “auto focus illuminator” (aka a small flash).  This illuminator kept activing during the visit so I didn’t get as many photos as I liked.

Shedd Aquarium - Lobster
Shedd Aquarium – Lobster

The Aquarium had a good rnage of tank exhibits, going the full range from ocean to river system.  A nice touch in the building design was aquatic elements incorporated into things such as door frames (as shown below).

Shedd Aquarium door detail
Shedd Aquarium door detail

The last tourist thing for that day was Skydeck.  On my first visit to Chicago I had gone up to the observation area in the John Hancock Center, up on the 94th floor (1030 feet/314 m).  This time I wanted to go to Skydeck in Willis Tower, which was on the 103rd floor (1353 feet/412 m) and preferably at night to get some photos.  Fortunately at that time of year, the sun goes down very early in Chicago so you don’t have to wait long for the right conditions.

Skydeck Chicago
Skydeck Chicago

Rounding out the evening was dinner at the restaurant Tru.  The entire place is very subdued, from the front of it (looks like it wasn’t even open) to the interior.  The tasting menu was great, with two stand-out courses – the first course of a vivid red dish containing beet, apple and raspberry, and the second course of a barely scrambled egg with white truffle served in an egg shell.

ORD-PDX
Back to O’hare and using the AA lounge again.  The nice thing about getting to the airport is there seems to be a fixed pricing for it from the city, so at least you know exactly what you’re going to pay.  This flight was one of those “what was I thinking” moments, because I recall putting a lot of effort into getting a window seat and reminding myself to get my camera ready so I could take some good pictures of the area around Portland (Mt Hood, etc).  Yet the flight I ended up booking left 5pm Chicago time, where it was already dark.

Portland
Portland decided to hold off on the rain for most of the time I was there, which helped with the things I wanted to see.  First up were the Multnomah Falls.  There’s a number of waterfalls along the gorge area to the east of Portland and this was one of the more accessible ones, just a few minutes walk from where you park.  Due to the time of year, there was a good mix of colours in the trees in the area.

Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls

Next was Vista House, a tourist spot perched up on the edge of the gorge area.  It gives a great vantage point for photos and views of the area.

Vista House
Vista House

Rocky Butte is one of a number of “cinder cones” in Portland itself, remnents of volcanoes.  Since it’s near/in the city itself, it provides good views of the city area.

View from Rocky Butte
View from Rocky Butte

The last thing I checked out in Portland was the Aerial Tram.  As with the other things I went to, it gives good views of the area, although it can be a bit offputting if you struggle with heights.

High point of the Aerial Tram
High point of the Aerial Tram

PDX-LAX/LAX-SYD/SYD-PER
The flight out of Portland was on Alaska Airlines as AA don’t do that route.  It meant I was able to check out Alaska’s lounge.  It was pretty “cosy”, a bit smaller than some of the others I’ve been to.  Only one body scanner was in operation at the terminal I had to go to, slowing that process down (the same had happened last year).  Due to an error on my part (or maybe I planned it and forgot about it) I had a 26 hour layover in LA, so I booked a night at one of the hotels near LAX.  While it was rated 4 stars on Trip Advisor, it was closer to 2.5 or 3.

Night-time approach to LAX
Night-time approach to LAX

I made a point of getting to the airport early because the flight to Sydney leaves quite late and I wanted to get some dinner in first.  The return flight to Sydney was also upgraded which meant a slightly fast track through security.

At the boarding area, after dinner, the clock ticked down and yet no boarding started.  Eventually we were told that there was a “security issue” and they would come back to us in 5-10 minutes.  Then the issue turned into something electrical and it would take about an hour to fix.  So back to the first class lounge!

One of the large format visual displays in LAX
One of the large format visual displays in LAX

After the hour or so, the plane did board and the flight went well.  However, the late start, slightly longer flight time and waiting for a gate meant I missed my connection.  Fortunately QANTAS arranged a boarding pass for the next flight to Perth for me (as it turns out, the next flight had a better seat fit-out anyway).

Salt lakes near Flinders Range
Salt lakes near Flinders Range

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